- It was a very hot day.
- “The streets were a furnace, the sun an executioner.” (Cynthia Ozick, “Rosa”)
Both the sentences mean the same. However, the second sentence makes use of metaphor – a figure of speech that emphasizes the fact using a comparison rather than just stating it. Each language has such literary terms and devices that makes it a mode of expression of creativity and imagination along with one’s thoughts. Besides the rules of English grammar there are numerous other devices that make expression so effortless. This article is a glossary of literary terms and definitions in English language. This glossary is not only of help to students of a particular language, but will also enable common man to appreciate the beauty of this language.
A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X |Y | Z
Ab Ovo: Latin phrase for a narrative that starts “at the beginning” of a plot and moves on describing events till the end of the plot in chronological order of events. This is opposed to in medias re in which a narrative begins somewhere in the middle of the plot, and recounts earlier events through a character’s memories or flashback.
Business: Also known as on-stage business, the term business denotes any on-stage activity like expressions, gestures, and general activity of the actors, other than blocking.
Cacophony: In poetry, cacophony refers to the use of sharp, harsh, and unmelodious sound. It is the opposite of euphony.
Dactyl: It is a three-syllable foot that contains one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. Dactyl is the opposite of anapest.
Early Modern English: In the beginning of the 1940s, many historians replaced the term Renaissance with “early modern” to cover the period from the 1450 to 1800. “Late modern” began from 1800 to the present day.
[Return To Top]
Fable: A fable is a short story that essentially has a moral. Fables are written and told to induce certain morals without instructions. There is mostly a use of animals and other imaginary creatures. The literary term can also mean idle talk.
Gallows Humor: Gallows humor is used to express a serious, frightening, or painful subject matter in a humorous or satirical manner.
Hagiography: Hagiography is the study of saints. It refers literally to writings on the subject of such holy people, and specifically the biographies of ecclesiastical and secular leaders. Hagiography and the use of it in modern literature, is fairly uncommon.
Iambic Meter: Iambic meter is a type of metrical foot found in English poetry, where an unstressed syllable comes first, and then the stressed syllable appears. Poems which have the iambic meter are known as having a raising meter as it ends with a strong stress. This metrical foot can be seen in majority of the English poems, and is thus said to be the most common.
Jacobean Era: The Jacobean period is the era when England was ruled by King James VI. This era extends from the year 1603 – 1625, and follows the Elizabethan era during which England was under the rule of Queen Elizabeth. When she died, her cousin, James VI of Scotland took over the throne. The literary works produced during this period are known as Jacobean literature. Some famous writers of this era include William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, John Donne, John Webster, etc.
Kabuki: Kabuki is a dance drama which is a part of the traditional Japanese culture. This stylized form of dance drama can be based on a variety of themes like love relationships, historical events, etc. Along with the dialogs said by the characters in the drama, one can also find the use of musical instruments. It is said to have originated in the year 1603, when kabuki was played only by women. However, later in the Edo period, women were banned from performing Kabuki, which is a rule that has continued to be followed even in today’s modern world.
Lai: Lai is a short narrative poem or song written by French and German writers during the 13th and 14th century. The main theme of the lai poems was romance and courtly love written in octasyllabic couplets. Marie de france have written a number of lai poems which are named as Breton lai, because they have borrowed heavily from Celtic and Arthurian legends.
Machiavellian: The term ‘Machiavellian’ is attributed to rulers who seem to be honorable and trustworthy from the outside, however, are actually very ruthless, deceitful, and power seeking individuals who would go to any length to safeguard their position and power. This term was coined by an Italian writer, Niccolo Machiavelli in his work, The Prince, where he said that human beings by nature are untrustworthy and cunning, and without indulging in evil and deceitful actions, people in power would not be able to hold up their position. Machiavellianism became very popular in the 16th century as many playwrights used it in their plays.
Narration: The act of telling a sequence of events to an audience. It also refers to a story that involves situations, characters, action, etc.
Objective Correlative: It refers to a literary device which uses an event or a situation to symbolize an implicit mood or emotion, that is ordinarily inexplicable.
Palindrome: A word or a sentence, that reads the same, when read forwards or backwards. Palindromes date back at least to 79 A.D., as the palindromic Latin word square “Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas” was found as a graffito.
Qualitative Meter: Qualitative meter is usually found in English poems, where heavily stressed and lightly stressed syllables appear alternatively throughout the poem.
Reader-response Criticism: Reader response criticism is a literary theory which gives utmost importance to the reader in interpreting a work of literature. This theory is in contrast to other literary theories that try to find the absolute meaning, or what the author intended through the book. Pioneers of this theory believed that no interpretation is absolute, rather each reader creates his own interpretation. The focus of this theory is on the way an individual reads and the factors that influence his interpretation.
Saga: In the original sense, a saga refers to the Scandinavian and Icelandic stories about battles, legends and customs that were written in prose between 1120 and 1400. These traditionally dealt with the exploits of a hero, families and kings. Most of the Icelandic saga revolves around the tales of the Vikings settling in the region; like the Grettir’s Saga, Egil’s Saga and the Saga of Eric the Red. However, in contemporary times, saga refers to a work of literature that narrates the exploits of a hero or the accomplishments of a family through several generations. A good example of a recent saga is Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.
Tale: A tale is a simple narrative in which the main focus is on the course and outcome of events. Fairy tale, folk tale, fable, tall tale and urban legend are some of the different types of tales.
Understatement: Understatement is a literary device that stands completely opposite to the figure of speech, hyperbole. An understatement is when an issue or situation is expressed in a much lesser magnitude than it actually is. Understatement usually creates an ironic effect and sometimes is also used to create humor.
Variorum: The term varorium can have two interpretations. Firstly, it is a collection of all the works of the writer including the various revisions done to those works. Variorum also refers to an edition which contains all the annotations, criticisms, and commentaries of various critics and editors on a particular piece of work.
Well-made Play: The well made play was introduced by Eugene Scribe and Victorien Sardou in the 19th century. This dramatic genre was later adopted by realistic writers like Henrik Ibsen. Well-made plays were created with careful as well as logical construction of the plot.
Xanaduism: The term ‘Xanaduism’ was initiated by John Livingston Lowes in his work, Road to Xanadu which is the study of Coleridge’s poem, Kubla Khan. Xanaduism refers to the literary study of sources that helped in the formation of fantasy and imaginative works.
Yarn: A story that talks about adventures and events that are made interesting by adding impossible fantastic elements. The language used in yarn is usually colloquial English which has a realistic tone.
Zeitgeist: Zeitgeist is a German word which means ‘the spirit of the times’. The term refers to the spiritual, cultural, political, and intellectual attitudes, and spirit of a country or society during a particular period.