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What Is an Adynaton?

Jonathan Swift famously used adynaton in "Gulliver's Travels".
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  • Written By: Alan Rankin
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 10 December 2014
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Adynaton is a literary term referring to the creative use of exaggeration. Exaggeration used as a figure of speech, a metaphor, or a description is commonly known as hyperbole. Adynaton is a specific form of hyperbole that describes something impossible. An example is the common English expression “when pigs fly,” meaning something is as likely to occur as airborne livestock. Similarly unlikely scenarios have been described in works of literature since ancient times and in the figures of speech of nearly all languages.

Numerous ancient Greek and Roman writers employed adynaton, which was known in Latin as the poetic-sounding impossibilia. This probably reflected the common use of similar phrases as conversational figures of speech. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ is famously quoted as saying, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Another early use of adynaton was in folk tales, in which heroic figures were often capable of impossible feats. The American frontier folk hero Pecos Bill, for example, could saddle and ride a cyclone like a bucking bronco.

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A common modern use of adynaton is in figures of speech like “pigs might fly” or “when Hell freezes over.” These English expressions describe the unlikelihood of an event by comparing it to other events that will never occur. This type of expression has parallels in numerous languages around the world. The use of deliberately humorous imagery in these expressions helps to make them more preposterous and therefore more memorable.

There are always those who attempt to literalize these expressions, to physically create an adynaton or impossible event. In 1909, for example, an early aviator took a piglet for a flight in his biplane to demonstrate that “pigs might fly.” For centuries, religious scholars have ventured that the “eye of the needle” Christ described was a real passage rather than a metaphor, but no such passage has been discovered. In a 2008 episode of the TV series Mythbusters, the hosts created an actual “lead balloon.” This referred to a popular adynaton for an unsuccessful venture, a saying that also inspired the name of the rock band Led Zeppelin.

Literary uses of adynaton include early works of fantasy like Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift and Gargantua by Francois Rabelais. In these works, people of gigantic size represent unflattering aspects of humanity itself. Modern fantasy and superhero stories focus on characters who can accomplish impossible feats, as did older tales of demigods and folk heroes. Romantic poets of the 18th century often compared their depths of feeling to impossible events or actions. Modern uses include the classic rock song “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” in which Jimi Hendrix declares he will approach a mountain and “chop it down with the edge of my hand.”

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