Antanaclasis as a figure of speech: Literary Terms

What is antanaclasis?
Antanaclasis definition and examples

Antanaclasis Definition

Antanaclasis is a figure of speech in which a word is repeated within a sentence or phrase, but each time it is used, it has a different meaning or sense. This rhetorical device plays on the polysemy of a word (the existence of multiple meanings for a single word) to create a play on words, often resulting in a humorous, witty, or impactful effect. Antanaclasis aims to draw attention to a particular concept or idea by exploiting the linguistic versatility of language. For example; “If you aren’t fired with enthusiasm, you will be fired, with enthusiasm.” Here, “fired” is used first in the sense of being emotionally charged or excited, and second in the sense of being terminated from a job.

Remember that several figures of speech involve repetition or play on words, similar to antanaclasis, which can sometimes be confused with one another. These are usually “Homonyms”, “Pun”, “Zeugma“, and “Polyptoton“. But, antanaclasis specifically focuses on repeating the same word with notably different meanings each time it appears.

Example of Antanaclasis in Literature:

  1. “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” – Benjamin Franklin: In this famous quote, “hang together” means to stay united, while “hang separately” refers to literal hanging, implying execution.
  2.  “Give me liberty or give me death.” – Patrick Henry: While not a classic example of antanaclasis because the word “give” is used in the same sense both times, the contrast in outcomes (liberty versus death) creates a rhetorical effect similar to antanaclasis by juxtaposing two drastically different alternatives.
  3. “Men of few words are the best men” William Shakespeare, “Henry V”: This quote plays on the dual meaning of “men of few words,” implying both that such men are admirable for their reticence and literally better when they limit their speech.
  4. “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” Abraham Lincoln, “Cooper Union Speech”: Lincoln’s statement plays on the phrase “might makes right,” inverting it to emphasize moral righteousness over sheer power. The antanaclasis here revolves around the reversal of conventional wisdom, using the same words but in a reordered manner to highlight a different, more ethical perspective.
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