What Does "Metalepsis" Mean?

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  • Written By: Steven Symes
  • Edited By: Rachel Catherine Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 31 March 2020
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Metalepsis, otherwise called transumption, is an advanced form of a figure of speech. Rather than just using a figure of speech, the user of a metalepsis alludes to one or more other figures of speech. The meaning of a metalepsis changes in narratology, where it refers to the breaking down of narrative boundaries in a fictional book, play or even a movie.

The listener or reader must recognize the allusions to the other figures of speech to understand the meaning behind what is being communicated. Often the figure of speech conveys a metaphor by using another word associated with the thing being referred to. The figure of speech might also rely on a reference to a famous literary phrase or character, or play off of a popular saying in a society. For example, a person might say “I want to lick the brass ring” which is not a reference to a literal brass ring. In addition, the figure of speech might be a reference to a literary work, such as if someone says “something definitely smells in Denmark,” which is a reference to Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.


Often a metalepsis is used in literary comedies, or in more serious literary works as a way to inject comedy. The use of some words in the allusion might cause a comical exaggeration. If the figure of speech is taken literally by a reader or listener, then what is being communicated comes across as ridiculous or perhaps impossible. Part of the joke for the audience is in them recognizing the dual meanings of the phrase, and in laughing at the possible misinterpretations of the phrase by different characters in the literary work.

In narratology, metalepsis might toy with the structure of a play or fictional book. The narrator, whom the reader or audience assumes is separated from the action taking place, might suddenly begin to interact with the characters. This interaction between the narrator and the story might cause the narrator to find himself in the middle of the events of the book or play, possibly altering the direction of the storyline.

Both in live and recorded performances, characters might interact with the movie. An actor in a play or movie might turn to the audience, speaking directly to them and even invite the audience to partake in the performance. Action during a live performance might spill beyond the borders of the stage, with characters continuing their performances in the aisles of a theater.


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