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Literary Terms and Definitions: B

This page is under perpetual construction! It was last updated 5 November 2014.


This list is meant to assist, not intimidate. Use it as a touchstone for important concepts and vocabulary that we will cover during the term. Vocabulary terms are listed alphabetically.

[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]

BAADE SETAEE (Persian, "Wine Prizing"): A genre of Persian poetry extolling the virtues of wine, carousing, and celebration.

BABUIN: A fanciful monster, silly creature, or a leering face drawn in the margins of a medieval manuscript. We get our modern word baboon from this French term for the little grotesque creatures that illuminators drew and doodled. Typically, the babuin is engaged in silly antics, such as playing or interacting with the letters on the page, chasing other babuins, or even engaging in copulatory and scatological activities.

BACHIC FOOT: A three-syllable foot of poetry consisting of a light stress followed by two heavy stresses. This verse pattern was not unknown in Greek verse, but is fairly rare in English verse. An example of a phrase that corresponds in meter to the Bachic foot is "that strong king." The bachic foot is also called a bachius or a molossus, and poetry written in bacchic feet is said to be written in bachic meter. See meter and palimbacchius.

BACHIC METER: Poetry in which each foot is a three-syllable foot consisting of three heavy stresses. It is rare in English. The individual three-syllable foot is called a molossus.

BACHIUS: Another term for a bachic foot.

BACK-FORMATION: (1) The process of creating a new word when speakers (often mistakenly) remove an affix or other morpheme from a longer word. For instance, English speakers created the verb burgle by mistakenly thinking the word burglar as an agent noun derived from a verb. (2) Linguists call any word formed by this previously described process a "back-formation." For extended discussion see Algeo on pages 260-62.

BACK VOWEL: A vowel made with the topmost portion of the tongue in the back of the oral cavity. These include the vowel sounds found in ooze, oomph, go, law, and father. For a list of IPA phonetic transcriptions for vowels in PDF format, click here.

BAD QUARTO: In the jargon of Shakespearean scholars, a "bad quarto" is a copy of the play that a disloyal actor would recreate from memory and then submit for publication in a rival publishing house without the consent of the author. These bad quartos are often grossly inaccurate, but may contain useful stage directions not included in the original. See quartos, folios, and octavos, below.

BALLAD: In common parlance, song hits, folk music, and folktales or any song that tells a story are loosely called ballads. In more exact literary terminology, a ballad is a narrative poem consisting of quatrains of iambic tetrameter alternating with iambic trimeter. Common traits of the ballad are that (a) the beginning is often abrupt, (b) the story is told through dialogue and action (c) the language is simple or "folksy," (d) the theme is often tragic--though comic ballads do exist, and (e) the ballad contains a refrain repeated several times. One of the most important anthologies of ballads is F. J. Child's The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Famous medieval and Renaissance examples include "Chevy Chase," "The Elfin Knights," "Lord Randal," and "The Demon Lover." A number of Robin Hood ballads also exist. More recent ballads from the 18th century and the Scottish borderlands include "Sir Patrick Spens," "Tam Lin," and "Thomas the Rhymer." See also ballade and common measure.

BALLADE: A French verse form consisting most often of three eight-line stanzas having the same rhyme pattern, followed by a four-line envoy. In a typical ballade, the last lines of each stanza and of the envoy are the same. Among the most famous ballades are Chaucer's "Ballade of Good Advice" and Rossetti's translation of François Villon's "Ballade of Dead Ladies," which asks in each stanza and in the envoy, "Mais ou sont les nieges d'antan?" ("But where are the snows of yesteryear?") The ballade first rose to prominence in the 14th and 15th centuries, popularized by French poets like Guillaume de Machaut and Eustache Deschampes. It was perfected in the 16th century by François Villon, but it later fell into disrepute when 17th century poets like Moliere and Boileau mocked its conventions. See envoy, ballad.

BALLAD MEASURE: Traditionally, ballad measure consists of a four-line stanza or a quatrain containing alternating four-stress and three-stress lines with an ABCB or ABAB rhyme scheme. Works written in ballad measure often include such quatrains. As an example, the opening stanza to "Earl Brand" illustrates the pattern. Note also the bits of Scottish dialect in phrases such as "hae" for have and "awa" for away.

Rise up, rise up, my seven brave sons,
And dress in your armour so bright;
Earl Douglas will hae Lady Margaret awa
Before that it be light.

BALLAD OPERA: An eighteenth-century comic drama featuring lyrics set to existing popular tunes. The term originated to describe John Gay's The Beggar's Opera of 1728.

BALTIC: An east-European branch of the Indo-European language family--usually grouped with the Slavic languages as "Balto-Slavic."

BALTO-SLAVIC: A branch of Indo-European including the Slavic and Baltic languages.

BARD (Welsh Bardd, Irish Bard): (1) An ancient Celtic poet, singer and harpist who recited heroic poems by memory. These bards were the oral historians, political critics, eulogizers, and entertainers of their ancient societies. They were responsible for celebrating national events such as heroic actions and victories. (2) The word in modern usage has become a synonym for any poet. Shakespeare in particular is often referred to as "the Bard" or "the Bard of Avon" in spite of the fact he wrote in the Renaissance, long after the heyday of Celtic bards. The modern day has seen a sort of revival of bardic performance since 1822, when the ancient bardic performance contests were revived in Wales. These contests are called in Welsh Eisteddfodau (singular Eisteddfod). In modern Welsh, the term bardd refers to any participant who has competed in an Eisteddfod. See also skald and rhapsodoi.

BASE MORPHEME: A free or bound morpheme, to which other meaningful sounds can be added to form words. Examples of base morphemes include base in basic, or frame in reframe.

BATHOS (Grk, "depth"): Not to be confused with pathos, bathos is a descent in literature in which a poet or writer--striving too hard to be passionate or elevated--falls into trivial or stupid imagery, phrasing, or ideas. Alexander Pope coined the usage to mock the unintentional mishaps of incompetent writers, but later comic authors and poets used bathos intentionally for mirthful effects. One of the most common types of bathos is the humorous arrangement of items so that the listed items descend from grandiosity to absurdity. In this technique, important or prestigious ideas precede an inappropriate or inconsequential item. For instance, "In the United States, Usama bin Laden is wanted for conspiracy, murder, terrorism, and unpaid parking tickets." Many modern humorists like Lewis Grizzard make liberal use of bathos, but the technique is common in older literature as well. Famous examples appear in Lord Byron's mock-epic Don Juan and Alexander Pope's satires. See rhetorical schemes for more information.

BATTLE OF HASTINGS: This battle in 1066 CE marks the rough boundary between the end of the Anglo-Saxon (Old English) period from about 450-1066 CE and the beginning of the Middle English period from about 1066-1450. No other historical event except perhaps the Great Vowel Shift (c. 1400-1450 CE) has had such a potent influence on the development of English.

The battle took place between Duke William the Bastard (later known as King William I or "William the Conqueror") and the last claimant to the Anglo-Saxon throne, King Harold. William felt that King Edward the Confessor (who died childless in the twenty-fourth year of his reign) had promised him the throne of England. Duke William, leading a band of Norman and Picardian mercenaries, traveled from his dukedom in Normandy (northwestern France) to southeast England by sailing across the English channel after receiving the Pope's blessing. After William defeated Harold and pillaged southeast England, the citizens of London surrendered. He continued conquering sections of England until the 1080s, but 1066 was the decisive moment in history that positioned him for inevitable expansion and increasingly centralized control. William rapidly deposed or killed many Anglo-Saxon noblemen, priests, bishops, and archbishops, replacing them with French-speaking officials, favoring those knights who had fought for him previously.

As a result of this, by 1100, England became bilingual, with the aristocracy speaking Norman French and the common peasantry speaking Anglo-Saxon. The two languages began to merge, with Anglo-Saxon losing declensions, becoming analytic rather than synthetic in grammatical structure, and incorporating thousands of French and Latin loan-words. The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, still largely tribal in nature, were replaced by a complex but highly centralized monarchy operating by French feudal standards. See also Norman and Norman Invasion.

BEAST FABLE: A short, simple narrative with speaking animals as characters designed to teach a moral or social truth. Examples include the fables of Aesop and Marie de France, Kipling's The Jungle Book and Just So Stories, George Orwell's Animal Farm, Richard Adams' Watership Down, and Chaucer's "Nun's Priest's Tale." Contrast with fable, below.

BEASTS OF BATTLE: A motif common in medieval Germanic literature (including Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, and continental German poems) in which a raven, a wolf, and an eagle (or vulture) appear in short sequence--often one right after another. Because these three creatures scavenge the bodies of fallen warriors, they together serve as quick foreshadowing that a battle is about to occur.

BEAT: A heavy stress or accent in a line of poetry. The number of beats or stresses in a line usually determines the meter of the line. See meter.

I have also been informed that in drama, the term beat can be used to refer to a completed transaction in stage dialogue. The following example comes from Edmond Clay: "ACTOR #1: Hello! How are you? ACTOR #2: "Fine, thank you for asking."The second actor's response is an example of "finishing the beat" established by the first actor's line, but the beat can also be finished by any suitable action made in response to the requirements of earlier stage activity.

BECHDEL/WALLACE MEASURE: A test or thought experiment proposed by Liz Wallace in 1985 but popularized by comedian Alison Bechdel. The test illustrates how many narratives tend to focus character development and agency in male characters but reduce female characters to passive or supporting roles--even when it is not logical to do so. To pass the Bechdel measure, the narrative has to fulfill three requirements: (1) it must have at least two female characters in the story, (2) the two female characters must at some point in the narrative actually speak to each other rather than only talking to male characters, and (3) their conversation must be about something other than a male character. In popular culture, it is often referred to as the "Bechdel Movie Measure" or the "Bechdel Movie Test" since it is most commonly applied to films, though it serves equally well for novels and short stories. One might initially suspect that since women compose over 54% of the population, they would have roughly equal amounts of "screen time" and interaction compared to the male characters in popular books and movies. Strikingly, a significant number--even a majority--of common books and popular films fail this test--even when the writers or directors (or even the main protagonists) are female. If in fact the narrative passes the Bechdel measure, it may be scorned as a "chick flick." The Bechdel measure serves to illustrate principles literary theorists have commented upon for decades concerning objectification as discussed by Martha Nussbaum, "the male gaze" as discussed by Jaques Lacan and Laura Mulvey, and the role of women as intermediaries between men as discussed by Eve Sedgwick.

BECHDEL MOVIE MEASURE: See above.

BED-TRICK: The term for a recurring folklore motif in which circumstances cause two characters in a story to end up having sex with each other because of mistaken identity--either confusion in a dark room or deliberate acts of disguise in which one character impersonates another. This folklore motif appears in various jokes, fabliaux, and in various works of literature as well. Examples include the switch played upon Angelo in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure and the sexual confusion at miller Simkin's house in Chaucer's "The Reeve's Tale." See also cradle-trick.

BEHEADING GAME: A motif from Celtic literature that appears in diverse works such as the Middle Irish Briciu's Feast and the Middle English Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, this situation is one, according to Marie Boroff, "in which an unknown challenger proposes that one of a group of warriors volunteer to cut off his head, the stroke to be repaid in kind at some future date; the hero accepts this challenge, and at the crucial moment of reprisal is spared and praised for his courage" (See viii, Introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Trans. Marie Boroff, NY: W. W. Norton Company, 1967.)

BEL INCONNU ("The Fair Unknown," from Breton French le bel inconnu): A motif common to fairy tales, folklore and medieval Romance in which the protagonist's identity remains unknown until some suitably dramatic moment. This anonymity may result from a child being raised as an orphaned commoner until the revelation of an heirloom proves the child is noble-born, or it may result from a hero's intentional disguise in order to penetrate certain social circles, as in the case of a boy who disguises himself so that he can work in the kitchens near the knights, later becoming a page, and then ultimately becoming a knight himself. In a third definition, le bel inconnu might be a famous, prestigious knight who is so doughty in combat that no one will face him willingly (e.g., Lancelot). This knight must then enter the jousting lists disguised so that his opponents will not refuse the match. The motif appears in tales such as Lybeaus Desconus, a romance written in tail-rhyme by Thomas Chester, a fourteenth-century poet. In that romance, a young knight named Guinglian, the son of Sir Gawain, assumes the name Lybeaus Desconus (i.e., "the fair unknown") to hide his illustrious ancestry. See motif, fairy tale, romance.

BEOT (Anglo-Saxon: "vow"; becomes Modern English "boast"): A ritualized boast or vow made publicly by Anglo-Saxon warriors known as thegns before the hlaford in a mead-hall the night before a military engagement. A typical warrior's boast might be that he would be the first to strike a blow in the coming battle, that he would kill a particular champion among the enemy, that he would not take a single step backward in retreat during the battle, that he would claim a renowned sword from an enemy warrior as booty, and so on. This vow or boast was often accompanied by stories of his past glorious deeds. While later Christianized medieval culture (and perhaps modern American culture) might disdain boasting as a sign of arrogance or sinful pride, the pagan Anglo-Saxons valued such behavior. The beot was not so much a negative sign of arrogance as a positive sign of determination and character. Examples of the beot can be seen throughout Beowulf such as when Beowulf vows to fight Grendel without using any weapons. See also fame/shame culture, thegn, hlaford, mead-hall, and Anglo-Saxon.

BERESHITH (Hebrew, "in the beginning"): (1) The opening words of the Torah (or the first five books of the Tanach, or Hebrew Bible); (2) As a noun, the Hebrew title of what Protestant Christians would call "Genesis."

BERSERKER (Old Norse Ber-sirk, "bear-skin"; becomes Modern English "berserk"): The Icelandic, Scandinavian, and Norwegian sagas give accounts of fearsome Viking warrior-shamans who could entrance themselves and enter a frenzied hypnagogic state. During this period of rabid ferocity, the berserker no longer felt the pains of cold, injury, or fear. The berserkers simply became immune to such effects in their altered state of consciousness. In the Ynglinga Saga and other legends, they would enter combat either naked or wearing nothing but bear-skins, howling and roaring, biting the edges of their shields until blood flowed from their tongue and gums. (Thus we get the modern term "going berserk" to describe an insane frenzy.) In combat, they were apparently equally likely to attack both friend and foe, so the other Vikings kept their distance from them. The name berserker comes from the bearskin garments worn by these shamans, who believed that through their magic they absorbed the spirit, stamina, and strength of the bear into their own bodies, being effectively possessed by the soul of the bear. At the end of their trance, they were not expected to be able to recall their actions, since it was the bear-spirit fighting rather than the Viking himself. The tradition of the berserker gradually died out after Viking althings and jarls elected to accept Christianity, at which point such pagan practices become socially unacceptable. See saga and Viking.

BESTERMAN: A typical protagonist or anti-hero from the science fiction stories of Alfred Bester, such as Ben Reich in The Demolished Man, or Gully Foyle of The Stars My Destination. These complex characters embody traits of the Nietzchean uberman, and they combine both positive and negative qualities. They are rarely predictable, and they can alternately destroy or save the world, engage in heroic self-sacrifice or selfish rapine.

BESTIARY: A medieval treatise listing, naming, and describing various animals and their attributes, often using an elaborate allegory to explain the spiritual significance in terms of Christian doctrine. The bestiaries are examples of didactic literature, in that each animal's behavior ultimately points to a moral. The oldest bestiaries adapt material from Pliny and classical sources, though by the early 1200s, French bestiaries had doubled or tripled the entries found in Pliny by adding new materials. Later, thirteenth-century additions were made to Latin versions, usually derived from the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville (570-636 CE).The oldest surviving reference to this sort of bestiary that uses Christian doctrine is a marginal notation in a copy of Genesis dating from the early fifth-century, which refers the reader to the Physiologus for details about the animals in Genesis. The Physiologus (literally, "the Natural Philosopher" or "the Biologist") was particularly widespread, appearing in Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian, French, and Italian texts; its name comes from the opening lines in Latin, "Physiologus ait . . ." ["The biologist says . . ."]. Corresponding to bestiaries, lapidaries were treatises on the magical and spiritual properties of stones and gems, and herbaries or botanies discussed the magical and herbal properties of plants and trees. Often these materials would be packaged in single manuscripts, such as De Animalibus et Aliis Rebus (Concerning Animals and Other Things). See didactic literature. For an external link, see http://www.camrax.com/symbol/Bestiaryintro.php4.

BILABIAL: In phonetics, a sound such as /p/, /b/, or /m/ that requires both the upper and lower lip to articulate.

BILDUNGSROMAN (Germ. "formation novel"): The German term for a coming-of-age story. Also called an Erziehungsroman. For more information, see coming-of-age story.

BIOGRAPHICAL FALLACY: The error of believing, as George Kane phrases it in Chaucer studies, that "speculative lives" of narrators and characters "have some historical necessity" (17), i.e., characters and events in the author's historical life must have inspired, influenced, or been the source for any fictional events or characters in the work, or that the narrative speaker in a literary work must be synonymous with the author or poet's own voice and viewpoints. It was very common in nineteenth-century scholarship, for instance, to assume that Shakespeare's political or religious beliefs manifest in Prospero's words or Hamlet's soliloquies. The truth is often more complex; several of Shakespeare's characters in different plays express diametrically opposed viewpoints from each other, so which ones (if any) can we safely declare represent the playwright's personal perspectives? Even in cases where the narrator speaks in the first person, or when a character in a poem has the exact same name as the author, it proves impossible to prove that voice is identical with the author's personal beliefs. For example, the voice of "Geoffrey" in The Canterbury Tales appears to be ignorant of details that the historical author Geoffrey Chaucer knew intimately, so his fictional character cannot be equated safely with the historical author Geoffrey Chaucer who wrote the work. Likewise, the voice speaking in the poem, "Daddy," by Sylvia Plath, refers to multiple suicide attempts and a father's early death, and these two details lure readers into equating that voice with the suicide attempts and abusive father in the poet Sylvia Plath's own life--even though the age of the father's death and the number of suicide attempts do not match Plath's age when she attempted suicide or her total number of suicide attempts. Trying to make a direct connection here results in the biographical fallacy.

BIOGRAPHY (Greek, bios+graphe "life writing"): A non-fictional account of a person's life--usually a celebrity, an important historical figure, or a writer. If a writer uses his or her own life as the basis of a biography, the work is called an autobiography. Contrast with a memoir.

BLACK VERNACULAR: The ethnic dialect(s) associated with Americans of African ancestry is often called black vernacular or "Black English." It is also known a "African American Vernacular English," and abbreviated AAVE in scholarly texts. Click here for more information.

BLANK VERSE (also called unrhymed iambic pentameter): Unrhymed lines of ten syllables each with the even-numbered syllables bearing the accents. Blank verse has been called the most "natural" verse form for dramatic works, since it supposedly is the verse form most close to natural rhythms of English speech, and it has been the primary verse form of English drama and narrative poetry since the mid-Sixteenth Century. Such verse is blank in rhyme only; it usually has a definite meter. (Variations in this meter may appear occasionally.) The Earl of Surrey first used the term "blank verse" in his 1540 translation of The Aeneid of Virgil. As an example, in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Theseus' speech to Hippolyta appears in blank verse:

The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. (5.1.12-17)

BLENDING: Making a neologism by taking two or more existing expressions and shortening at least one of them. Examples include such as smog (from smoke and fog), motel (from motor and hotel), and brunch (from breakfast and lunch), workaholic (from work and alcoholic) or Lewis Carroll's chortle (chuckle and snort). Contrast with compounding.

BLOCKING: The spatial grouping and movement of characters on stage. Typically, good blocking ensures that all characters are visible to the audience, that the stage is not cluttered with a clump of actors in any one area, and that important action or actors remain positioned in such a way as to emphasize their centrality to the story. The best blocking arranged characters in a symbolic manner. The term should not be confused with blocking agent (see below).

BLOCKING AGENT: A person, circumstance, or mentality that prevents two potential lovers from being together romantically. The blocking agent was a common generic trait for classical Roman comedies and for many of Shakespeare's plays. It remains a feature even in modern genres such as Harlequin romances. The term should not be confused with blocking (see above).

BLOOD-FEUD (OE faeu): The custom among certain Germanic tribes like the Anglo-Saxons or the Vikings of seeking vengeance against another tribe or family if a member of that tribe or family injured or killed an individual belonging to one's own tribe or family. See also wergild and peace-weaver.

BLOOD LIBEL: The common but mistaken belief among medieval Christians that Jews would, as part of their normal religious practice, murder and mutilate Christian children and/or steal and defile sacramental wafers used in communion. This idea played a central role in much anti-semitic literature, including Chaucer's "Prioress' Tale."

BOB: See discussion under "bob-and-wheel," below.

BOB-AND-WHEEL: A metrical device in some alliterative-verse poetry, especially that of the Pearl Poet and that of fourteenth-century poems like Sir Tristrem. The first short line of a group of rhyming lines is known as the "bob" and the subsequent four are a quatrain called the "wheel." The bob contains one stress preceded by either one or occasionally two unstressed syllables (i.e., the bob is only two or three syllables long). Each line of the wheel contains three stresses. Together, the bob-and-wheel constitutes five lines rhyming in an ABABA pattern. Since it matches the alliterative pattern of the first part of the stanza, but also fits the rhyme scheme of the last five lines, the "bob" serves as a structural bridge between the alliterative sections and the rhyming sections of the poem. It is easier to understand by looking at an example. Click here for a sample to view with the different components labeled by color. See also alliteration and rhyme.

BODILY HUMORS: See "humors, bodily."

BODY POLITIC, THE: The monarchial government, including all its citizens, its army, and its king. Political theory in the Elizabethan period thought of each kingdom as a "body," with the king functioning as its head. Events affecting the body politic, such as political turmoil, warfare, and plague, would be mirrored in the macrocosm, the microcosm, and the Chain of Being (see below).

BOETHIAN: Having to do with the philosophy of Boethius, i.e., a philosophy of predestination suggesting all events appearing evil, misfortunate, disastrous, or accidental are none of these things. Rather, such events are illusions that only appear this way to humans because we are limited in our perceptions while bound by time. In actuality, such events serve a higher beneficial purpose that must remain unknown to us as long as we are trapped by the limits of the physical universe. The term comes from the philosopher Boethius, who formulated an argument concerning it in his immensely influential work, Consolatio Philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy), which he wrote in 524 AD while awaiting his execution in prison on unjust charges. To give the reader an idea of how popular this book was in the Middle Ages, over five hundred manuscripts of it survive today; in comparison, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales only survives in about eighty-two manuscripts. A common intellectual party-game in medieval times may have been to take turns reciting lines of the Consolatio by memory.

Boethian thought profoundly influenced Chaucer, who wrote Boece, his own translation of the Latin text. The concerns of Boethius were profoundly influential in Chaucer's "Knight's Tale" and Troilus and Criseyde. In "The Knight's Tale," Palamoun and Arcite's plight in prison is in many ways akin to that of the semi-autobiographical narrator in the Consolatio, and Duke Theseus' famous speech about the First Mover is a rough paraphrase of Boethian thought. In the conclusion to Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, Troilus' spirit floating over the battle and laughing at the small scale of the war and his old, bitter, fleshly desires is another Boethian moment.

BOGATYR: An epic hero in the Russian starinas or byliny (Old Russian folk-epics or historical songs), often having supernatural strength or abilities (Zenkovsky 523).

BOUND MORPHEME: A morpheme used exclusively as part of a larger word rather than one that can stand alone and retain independent meaning. Examples include the morpheme ept in the word inept, or the morpheme gruntle in the word disgruntled. This term is the opposite of a free morpheme, which can function by itself as a word, such as the morphemes it and self in the word itself.

BORDER: In medieval manuscripts, a border is, as Kathleen Scott puts it, "A type of book decoration placed around one to four sides of the justification [writing space] in order to distinguish and decorate main divisions of the text; usually more elaborate on the first page and/or Table of Contents page; also used around miniature frames" (Scott 370).

BORROWING: As Simon Horobin defines it, "The process by which words are adopted into one language from another" (192). Linguists use this term because borrowing sounds better than the term stealing, which would be more accurate given that we do not typically return the words we borrow. See also loanword.

BOURGEOIS: See discussion under bourgeoisie, below.

BOURGEOISIE (French, "city-dwelling"): The French term bourgeoisie is a noun referring to the non-aristocratic middle-class, while the word bourgeois is the adjective-form. Calling something bourgeois implies that something is middle-class in its tendencies or values. Marxist literary critics use the term in a specialized sense to indicate the comfortable, well-to-do class of consumers that have more status than the proletariat, the lower-class workers who perform the "real" work of a civilization in actually producing goods and materials. In another sense--one particularly useful for medieval historians--the term bourgeoisie encompasses the city-dwelling yeomen in the late medieval period who were no longer tied to agricultural work as enfeoffed serfs. These city-dwellers--including craftsmen, guildsmen, traders, and skilled laborers--worked on a capitalistic model in which goods and services would be provided in exchange for cash. Though to a modern American this arrangement seems normal enough, it was a revolutionary concept in a feudal society where transactions took place in barter, where most male citizens would swear loyalty to a liege lord in exchange for land or protection, and where serfs were bound to a section of land as the "property" of their feudal overlord. It was also a departure from the traditional "Three Estates" theory of government sanctioned by the church. The increasing number of bourgeois workers in cities and the diminishing number of serfs working in rural areas marked the transition from feudalism to modernity. Indeed, many of these so-called "middle class" citizens were fantastically wealthy--far richer in terms of their liquid assets than the knights and minor nobility who were their social "betters." The aristocrats attempted to distinguish themselves by the use of heraldic symbols, last-names, and sumptuary laws that made it illegal for "commoners" (no matter how rich) to wear particular types of clothing or jewelry.

The rise of the bourgeoisie accelerated after the Black Death of 1348, which killed on average about one-third of the European and Insular population. Suddenly, the earlier surplus of cheap labor vanished, and common laborers realized they could demand concessions from the nobility for their work. (If the nobleman refused, the serf could simply run away and find work in town, or on the lands of another nobleman who was less stingy with his demands; these outlets had been less accessible before. Previously, under the Three Estates system, the only social escape-hatch was to become a monk.) In England, aristocratic measures like the 1351 Statute of Laborers failed to freeze labor prices, and they failed to stop the slow slide from feudalism to capitalism. Such efforts along with ruinous taxes and corrupt government kindled widespread resentment amongst the lower classes. This anger exploded in the so-called Peasant's Revolt of 1381, led by Wat Tyler. The uprising was more accurately a popular bourgeois revolt against the nobility and the corruption of the gentry, but the appellation shows how the aristocracy still tended to think of the "lower classes" as serfs and treat them accordingly.

The rise of the bourgeoisie is mirrored in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, where Chaucer depicts humanity as a collection of pilgrims. Each character is a member of a specific occupation. We also see signs of social tension between various pilgrims, which manifests itself in the Miller's parody of the Knight's love-triangle, in the pretensions of the Monk and Prioress, the Franklin's concern with the idea that even non-aristocratic people can be "noble," and so on.

BOUSTROPHEDON (Greek, "as the ox turns while plowing"): A method of writing in which the text is read alternately from left to right on odd numbered lines and then read right to left in even numbered lines. Some early Greek texts are written in this manner, including Solon's laws. This method contrasts with English convention (left-to-right), Hebrew convention (right to left), and various Oriental conventions (top to bottom).

BOWDLERIZATION: A later editor's censorship of sexuality, profanity, and political sentiment of an earlier author's text. Editors and scholars usually use this term in a derogatory way to denote an inferior or incomplete text. A text censored in this way is said to be bowdlerized. The term comes from the name of Reverend Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825) who produced The Family Shakespeare (1815-18). He removed whatever he considered "unfit to be read by a gentleman in the company of ladies."

The following passages are a few examples of lines still frequently bowdlerized in American high-school and college textbooks:

  • Mercutio's jokes with the Nurse about masturbation in Romeo and Juliet (Act II. scene iv. l12-19)
  • Sampson and Gregory's talk about raping virgins in Romeo and Juliet (Act I, scene i, 16-27)
  • Petruchio's joke with Kate about oral sex ("my tongue in your tail") in The Taming of the Shrew (Act II, i, 215-17)
  • Iago's claim that Othello and Desdemona are, in modern slang, "having doggy-style sex" ("making the beast with two backs") in Othello (Act I, scene i, 112-13).

Other editors such as A. W. Verity continue to produce school editions of Shakespeare with such sections removed or altered. The tendency is not confined to Shakespearean plays, however. Victorian editions of Ovid's Art of Love and the poetry of Catallus often use ellipses in Latin editions to indicate expurgated lines dealing with sexual practices. Alternatively, Victorian "translations" of these texts would leave the Latin untranslated in those sections dealing with Ovid's advice in the bedroom or with adultery. Many modern editions of Greek mythology and many college anthologies of the Iliad quietly gloss over the homosexual nature of Achilles' relationship with Patroclus, or the lesbian aspects of Sappho's poetry (circa 7th century BCE). J. M. Manly's version of Chaucer's fabliaux and many other college Chaucer anthologies frequently remove or skip over the "naughty bits" in the Miller's, Reeve's, Wife's, and Shipman's tales. Other literary works frequently bowdlerized include Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), where later editors often remove the sections discussing how the protagonist saves the Lilliputian village by urinating on a fire and those discussing how the protagonist ends up hanging from the oversized nipples of a naked Brobdingnagian giantess. The 1001 Arabian Nights and the works of Sir Richard Burton are often bowdlerized to remove discussion of polygamous Arabic customs, sexuality, or violence.

Even the Bible itself has not escaped attempts at bowdlerization. In the nineteenth century, "decorous" versions of the Bible were printed in which "improper" verses were removed from the text and placed in a separately published appendix. To give some idea of the extent of the bowdlerization, these editors removed references to nudity in the Adam and Eve narrative (Gen 2:24-25), to Noah's drunkenness (Gen.9:20-25), genitalia (Deut.23:11-12), circumcision (Gen. 17: 12-14, Joshua 5:1-3, 1 Sam. 18:24-27), rape (Judges 19:22-26), homosexuality (Gen. 19-14), descriptions of incest (Gen. 19:30-36), masturbation (Gen. 38:8-10), Judah's sexual intercourse with his daughter-in-law (Gen. 38:15 et passim), and David's adultery with Bathsheba after seeing her bathing in the nude (2 Sam. 11:2 et passim). The list of expurgations goes on much further than this, but these few examples illustrate the over-zealous tendencies of censors. It seems that, for some editors, even God is guilty of puerile titillations.

Victorian and early twentieth-century editors were most likely to bowdlerize a text based on its sexual content. Today, texts tend to be censored or altered to remove racist or gender-biased content. The works of Ray Bradbury, Mark Twain, and William Faulkner also face bowdlerization when later editors and educators seek to remove racial epithets or stereotypes that African-American readers find insulting. Many anthologies of Chaucer leave out "The Prioress' Tale" because of her blatant antisemitism. Similar drives to edit sexist pronoun usage (i.e., using the masculine he in reference to individuals of indeterminate gender), or the use of masculine-tinged words like man or mankind instead of gender-neutral words like humanity have led to proposed alterations to the poems of John Milton and others, even though such attempts at bowdlerization often clash with the metrical or grammatical constraints of the original work, or elide the author's intentions and historical realities of the period. Click here to download a PDF handout discussing this material.

BOWDLERIZE: To censor or alter an earlier writer's work. See discussion under bowdlerization, above.

BOW-WOW THEORY: In linguistics, the idea that language began when humans imitated animal noises or other natural sounds. Contrast with the yo-he-ho theory.

BOX SET: A theatrical structure common to modern drama in which the stage consists of a single room setting in which the "fourth wall" is missing so the audience can view the events within the room. Contrast with the theater in the round and apron stage.

BRADSHAW SHIFT: Not to be confused with the Great Vowel Shift, the Bradshaw Shift is a suggested alteration to the order of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, one which differs radically from the manuscript tradition.

Chaucer never completed The Canterbury Tales, and he left us today ten fragments that can be organized in various ways to make a larger narrative. These fragments are bits of narrative linked together by internal signs--such as pieces of conversation or passages referring to an earlier story or the story about to come next. The fragments are usually designated with Roman numerals (i.e., I-X) in modern editions of the text, though the Chaucer Society uses alphabetical designations to refer to these fragments (i.e., Fragments A-I). Only between Fragments IX-X and (in the case of the Ellesmere family between Fragments IV-V) do we find explicit indication of an order. Consequently, modern editions differ in the order the tales are presented.

The most controversial and influential of these theorized orders is known as the Bradshaw Shift. In this arrangement, Fragment VII (B2) is moved to follow Fragment II (B1), with Fragment VI following. The complete arrangement thus looks like this: I (A), II (B1), VII (B2), VI (C), III (D), IV (E), V (F), VIII (G), IX (H), and X (I). A slight variant of this order is that of Baugh and Pratt, who move Fragment V so that it follows Fragment VI. The controversy about such an arrangement stems from the fact that none of the surviving 82 manuscripts of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales contains such a specific order, even though there is good evidence from the stories that such an order makes sense. Click here to download a detailed pdf handout discussing the Bradshaw Shift and the order of the tales.

BRANCH: One of the four groupings of Welsh tales in The Mabinogion. Tradition divides The Mabinogion into a series of loosely connected narratives revolving around one or more characters.

(1) First Branch: Pwyll

(2) Second Branch: Branwen

(3) Third Branch: Manawydan

(4) Fourth Branch: Math vab Mathonwy

Collectively, these are famously called "The Four Branches of the Mabinogi."

BRETON: A Celtic language spoken in the northwestern part of France. Not to be confused with a Briton with an -i (i.e., a British person). See further discussion under "Bretons" below.

BRETON LAI (also spelled Breton lay): Another term for a lai. See lai.

BRETONS: The Celtic inhabitants of Brittany ("Little Britain") in northeast France who speak the Breton language. The term is related to British "Briton." The Bretons may be responsible for carrying Arthurian legends into France, where they influenced Chretien de Troyes and other continental writers. They also produced the lais that influenced Marie de France. Click here for a map of the regions where Breton is spoken.

BREVE: A mark in the shape of a bowl-like half circle that indicates a light stress or an unaccented syllable.

BRITICISM: An expression or word that developed in Britain after the American colonies separated politically from Britain's rule.

BRITISH ENGLISH: The English language in the British isles, especially in contrast with Canadian, Australian, or U.S. English.

BRITON: An inhabitant of Britain--especially a Celtic one. Do not confuse it with a Breton, a Celtic inhabitant of Brittany in France. Note that while all the English, the Scottish, and the Welsh are often called Britons or Brits, none of them are Bretons. Additionally, only the folks in Southeastern portions of Britain are English. Calling a Scotsman or a Welshman an "Englishman" is a good way for ignorant American travelers to have their jaws broken in a rowdy pub.

BROAD TRANSCRIPTION: Imprecise phonetic transcription for general comparative purposes.

BROTHERS-IN-ARMS: Individuals in medieval warfare who have sworn a military partnership with each other, agreeing to ransom each other from imprisonment if one of the two is captured by the enemy, swearing to abide by the rules established in their company, vowing loyalty to one another, and agreeing to share their plunder amongst themselves in a predetermined way. Chaucer's Palamon and Arcite in "The Knight's Tale" appear to swear brothership-in-arms with each other, but that vow of loyalty falls apart when both are lovestruck by the sight of Emilye. For further discussion of this medieval practice, consult Maurice H. Keen's books and articles on chivalry.

BRYTHONIC (also spelled Brittanic): One of the two branches of the Celtic family of languages descended from Proto-Indo-European. Brythonic includes Celtic languages such as Cornish, Breton, and Welsh. The Brythonic language branch is also referred to as "P-Celtic" because it tends to use a <p> in certain words where a <q> or <c> appears in Goidelic cognates. Contrast with the related Goidelic or Q-Celtic branch, which includes Manx, Irish Gaelic, and Scots Gaelic.

BURLESQUE: A work that ridicules a topic by treating something exalted as if it were trivial or vice-versa. See also parody and travesty.

BUSINESS (also called stage business): The gestures, expressions, and general activity (beyond blocking) of actors on-stage. Usually, business is designed to elicit laughter. Such activity is often spontaneous, and may vary from performance to performance. Cf. blocking, above.

BUSKINS: Originally called kothorni in Greek, the word buskins is a Renaissance term for the elegantly laced boots worn by actors in ancient Greek tragedy. The buskins later became elevator shoes that made the actor wearing them unusually tall to emphasize the royal status or importance of the character. Contrast with soccus.

BYLINA (plural byliny) : Also called a starina, an Old Russian epic song in which a bogatyr (supernatural hero) serves as the protagonist. As Zenkovsky notes, byliny are divided into two separate cycles--a Kievan cycle dealing with the ruler Prince Vladimir of Kiev and a Novgorodian cycle dealing with the merchant-bogatyr named Sadko (524). The Kievan cycle focused on eleventh-century events, and its most popular bogatyrs were Ilya Murmoets, Alesha Popovich, and Dobryni Nikitich (though judging from the pagan material, many of the original byliny appear to pre-date Christianity in Russia); the Novgorodian cycle appear to be much later in origin, and they seem more thoroughly Christianized, and most surviving Novgorodian examples appear to date from the 13th-15th centuries (524).

BYRONIC HERO: An antihero who is a romanticized but wicked character. Conventionally, the figure is a young and attractive male with a bad reputation. He defies authority and conventional morality, and becomes paradoxically ennobled by his peculiar rejection of virtue. In this sense, Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost may be considered sympathetically as an antihero, as are many of Lord Byron's protagonists (hence the name). From American pop culture, the icon of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause is a good example. Other literary examples are Heathcliffe in Wuthering Heights and the demonic Melmoth in Melmoth the Wanderer. Byronic heroes are associated with destructive passions, sometimes selfish brooding or indulgence in personal pains, alienation from their communities, persistent loneliness, intense introspection, and fiery rebellion.

[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]

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I consulted the following works while preparing this list. I have tried to give credit to specific sources when feasible, but in many cases multiple reference works use the same examples or provide the same dates for common information. Students should examine these resources for more information than these humble webpages provide:

Works Cited:

  • Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 6th edition. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Pub., 1993. [Now superseded by later editions.]
  • ---. "Poetic Forms and Literary Terminology." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th edition. Volume 1. New York: Norton, 2000. 2944-61. 2 Vols.
  • Algeo, John and Thomas Pyles. The Origin and Development of the English Language. 5th edition. U.S.A., 2004.
  • Baugh, A. C. and Thomas Cable. A History of the English Language. 5th edition. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 2002.
  • Brown, Michelle P. Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms. London: The British Library and the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1994.
  • Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. [Originally published 1977 as Griechische Religion der archaischen und klassischen Epoche.] Trans. John Raffan. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1985.
  • Catholic University of America Editorial Staff. The New Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: McGraw-Hill. 1967-79.
  • Corbett, Edward P. J. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. 3rd edition. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990.
  • Cuddon, J. A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. London: Penguin Books, 1991.
  • Damrosch, David, gen. ed. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 2nd Compact Edition. Volume A. New York: Pearson, 2004. 3 Vols.
  • Deutsch, Babette. Poetry Handbook: A Dictionary of Terms. Fourth Edition. New York: Harper and Row, 1974. Reprint as Barnes and Noble Edition, 1981.
  • Drout, Michael D. C. J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. New York: Routledge, 2007.
  • Duffy, Seán. Medieval Ireland: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2005.
  • Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.
  • Elkhadem, Saad. The York Dictionary Literary Terms and Their Origin: English, French, German, Spanish. York P, 1976.
  • Gabel, John B. and Charles B. Wheeler. The Bible as Literature: An Introduction. New York: Oxford U P, 1986.
  • Giroux, Joan. The Haiku Form. New York: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1974. Reprinted New York: Barnes and Noble, 1999.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen. "Glossary." The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies. New York: Norton, 1997. 1139-43.
  • Guerin, Wilfred L., et al. "Glossary." A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. 2nd ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1979. 317-29.
  • Harkins, Williams E. Dictionary of Russian Literature. The New Students Outline Series. Patterson, New Jersey: Littlefield, Adams, and Co., 1959.
  • Harvey, Sir Paul and Dorothy Eagle, eds. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1969.
  • Holman, C. Hugh. A Handbook to Literature. 3rd edition. New York: The Odyssey Press, 1972.
  • Hopper, Vincent Foster. Medieval Number Symbolism: Its Sources, Meaning, and Influence on Thought and Expression. 1938. Republished Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2000.
  • Horobin, Simon. Chaucer's Language. New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2007.
  • Kane, George. The Autobiographical Fallacy in Chaucer and Langland Studies. London: H. K. Lewis, 1965.
  • Lacy, Norris J. The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, 1996.
  • Lanham, Richard A. A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. 2nd edition. Berkeley: U of California P, 1991.
  • Marshall, Jeremy and Fred McDonald. Questions of English. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.
  • Mawson, C. O. Sylvester and Charles Berlitz. Dictionary of Foreign Terms. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 2nd ed. 1975.
  • McManus, Damian. Ogam Stones At University College Cork. Cork: Cork U P, 2004.
  • Metzger, Bruce M. and Michael D. Coogan, eds. The Oxford Companion to the Bible. New York: Oxford U P, 1993.
  • O'Donoghue, Heather. Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA:Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
  • Page, P.K. "Forward." Hologram. Brick Books, London, Ontario: 1994.
  • Palmer, Donald. Looking At Philosophy: The Unbearable Heaviness of Philosophy Made Lighter. 2nd edition. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1994.
  • Peck, Harry Thurston. Harper's Dictionary of Clasical Literature and Antiquities. New York: The American Book Company, 1923. 2 vols.
  • Perelman, Ch. and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca. The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation. Notre Dame, U of Notre Dame P, 2000.
  • The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.
  • Quinn, Arthur. Figures of Speech: 60 Ways to Turn a Phrase. Davis, California: Hermagoras P, 1993.
  • Rae, Gail. Guide to Literary Terms. Staten Island, New York: Research and Educational Association, 1998.
  • Roberts, Edgar V. and Henry E. Jacobs. "Glossary of Literary Terms." Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. 6th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001. 2028-50.
  • Scott, Kathleen L. Later Gothic Manuscripts, 1390-1490. A Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles 6. London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 1996. 2 Vols.
  • Shaw, Harry. Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.
  • Shipley, Joseph T. Dictionary of World Literature: Criticism, Forms, Technique. The Philosophical Library. New York: Philosophical Library, 1943.
  • Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary. 1989.
  • Smith, David P. "Glossary of Grammar Terms." [Miscellaneous handouts made available to students in Basic Greek at Carson-Newman College in the Fall Term of 2006.]
  • Swain, Dwight V. Creating Characters. The Elements of Fiction Writing. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 1990.
  • Williams, Jerri. "Schemes and Tropes." [Miscellaneous handouts made available to her graduate students at West Texas A & M University in the Fall Term of 1993.]
  • Yasuda, Kenneth. The Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature, History, and Possibilities in English. Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1957.
  • Zenkovsky, Serge A. Medieval Russia's Epics, Chronicles, and Tales. Rev Ed. New York: Meridian Books, 1974.
  • Zireaux. E-mail Communication. 21 June 2012.


 

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