What Is Catachresis?

T. Carrier

In general terms, a catachresis is a mistake in language. For most cases, it involves using a word in the wrong context or straining the word's meaning from its norm. Mixed metaphors are one prominent example of catachresis. Individuals might engage in misapplication of a word unintentionally, or they might misuse the word on purpose in order to create a stylistic or rhetorical effect. The use of catchresis usually separates a word from its literal meaning, so it is a figure of speech.

The poet and playwright William Shakespeare used catachresis in his writing.
The poet and playwright William Shakespeare used catachresis in his writing.

A cathachresis might change the meaning of a word. When the change results from unintentionally replacing one word's meaning with another word's meaning, a malapropism has taken place. This usually happens when two words sound similar, such as using the word "electrical" in a sentence rather than the word "electoral." An intentional change might be used as a literary tool, a means of making a point or as an expression of extreme emotion. If an individual references a slithering politician, for example, the term "slither" is understood as more of a commentary on the politician's reptilian personality than a literal reference to sliding over a surface.

Hamlet's use of the phrase "to take arms against a sea of troubles" is an example of a catachresis.
Hamlet's use of the phrase "to take arms against a sea of troubles" is an example of a catachresis.

One of the most prominent examples of a catachresis is the mixed metaphor, and this figure of speech occurs when an individual is seeking to make an exaggerated and illogical comparison between two objects. In other words, two objects are being compared that have no obvious similarities. Mixed metaphors are often used intentionally in literary works as creative and unique ways of expressing particular ideas. In William Shakespeare's famous play Hamlet, one of Hamlet's most renowned speech includes a catachresis of this variety: "... to take arms against a sea of troubles ... ." For this comparison, the writer has forged a connection between two seemingly unrelated topics: war and the ocean.

Intentional catachresis is particularly prominent in postructuralist works. This literary philosophy thrives on ambiguity and breaking down traditional literary techniques, structures and meanings. As such, postructuralist authors embraced the wordplay and confusion that is inherent in catachresis. Therefore, catachresis abounds in such works. Sounds might be seen rather than heard, darkness might be bright, or an individual might experience a dull sharpness.

On occasion, the catachresis might create a word or reference that previously did not exist, and in these cases, it fills a void in meaning. For example, some words are grammatically incorrect but are so pervasive in use that they become an unofficial part of a language. The English word "ain't" is such an example, and it is referred to as a solecism. Words also might arise to describe a previously unnamed action that has become commonplace in popular culture. In the computing world, for example, the word "tweet" has become recognized as a reference to messages created on the social network called Twitter.

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Discussion Comments


My husband is prone to catachresis. He would say to the dog, "You're all excitable," when what he meant was "excited." I never figured out if he thought he was using the correct word, or if he didn't realize he was doing it. He won't admit to either one.

One common catachresis you hear around here is people using the term "prostrate" for "prostate." In general, these people are rural, and they think this is the correct term. They're not aware their usage is incorrect.

Of course in writing, confusing "they're," "their" and "there" is unfortunately very common, as is using an apostrophe to pluralize words, which frequently creates words that are completely wrong for the sentence.


Actually, technology might be the biggest field of examples of chatachresis.

There are numerous words that have changed meanings in technology, based on what they look like (mouse), what they do (virus), or for other murky reasons (boot up). Program is now a verb and a noun, and a noun with a completely different meaning than the original of something that gave a schedule of events for a particular event, like a church service or wedding.

A computer virus is essentially malicious programming, but it spreads and destroys like a biological virus. But the action is similar, so the computer programmers came up with the term “virus” to describe it.

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