Terms and Definitions: D
This page is under perpetual
construction! It was last updated January 5, 2016.
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.
DACTYL: A three-syllable foot consisting of a heavy
stress and two light stresses. Examples of words in English
naturally constitute dactyls include
strawberry, carefully, changeable, merrily, mannequin,
tenderly, prominent, buffalo, glycerin, notable, scorpion,
tedious, horrible, and parable.
Verses written in feet that follow this pattern are
be in dactylic meter. For further discussion, see meter,
here for a PDF handout contrasting dactyls and other
types of feet.
DAGGER: Another term for the symbol obelisk. See obelisk.
The practice of paying extortion money to Vikings
to make them go away, often associated in particular with
the Anglo-Saxon king "Aethelred Unraed." His nickname
means "Aethelred the Unready," or more accurately
translated, "Aethelred the Uncounciled." At various
points in history, British kings paid as much as 20,000 pounds
in silver to appease the Vikings and prevent invasion--a disastrous
policy that bankrupted the island and encouraged the
return of extortionate Vikings every few years. This failed
policy of Danegeld ultimately led to large portions of northern
England being settled by the Vikings in the area known as
the Danelaw, which in turn played a key part in the evolution
of the English language through the incorporation of Scandinavian
loan-words. Words like skiff,
ship, and shirt,
for instance, are all loan-words borrowed from the Vikings.
NB: Danegeld should not be confused with
DANELAW (Anglo-Saxon, Dena lagu): The region
of northeast England up to the southern part of Scotland
that was conquered and inhabited by Viking invaders. In 871
CE, a Wessex army under King Aethelred (the West Saxon king)
and his brother Alfred confronted the Danish Vikings at the
Battle of Ashdown (in modern Berkshire). Unfortunately, after
a series of losses, Wessex began paying annual Danegeld
(tribute) to the Vikings. Aethelred died soon after, and Viking
settlers swarmed into the northern parts of England while
their raiders occupied London.
The Vikings continued
their expansion until 878 CE. That year, King Alfred the Great
rallied men from Somerset and Wiltshire and decisively defeated
the Danish Vikings. The Danes were too numerous to dislodge
from their holdings, but it was clear that they would not
be able to expand their territory while Alfred lived. King
Alfred freed London from Danish occupation in 886. At this
point, Alfred made a treaty with the Danes so that England
was divided. The northeastern section between the Rivers Thames
and Tees was officially declared to be Danish territory and
later become known as the Danelaw (where the inhabitants
followed Danish law from 890 onward). The influence of this
period of Viking settlement is still visible in the North
of England and the East Midlands, especially in toponyms
or place-names. Towns with name-endings such as -by
or -thorp are all places
named by the Viking settlers.
"morbid dance"): A gruesome motif or
trend that spread through late medieval Europe's visual
art, architecture, sculpture,
and poetry in the wake of the Black Plague (1347-1349
CE) and which remained common in woodcuts, gravemarkers,
and cenotaphs through
the Renaissance two hundred years later. Visually, it
took the form of
skeletons, graves, and similar death-imagery, most famously
in images of living revelers intermixed with animated
skeletons carousing, eating, drinking, and dancing.
Functionally, the art was a memento mori,
a reminder of death's inevitability
in the face of each individual's
mortality. In terms of literature, we find traces of
the dans macabre motif appearing in tombstone
as I am, So Shalt Thou Be," or
such as "Golden
lads and girls all must, / As chimney-sweeps, come to
LADY SONNETS: Sonnets 127-147 of the Shakespearean
collection published in 1609 are known loosely as the "Dark
Lady" sonnets because most of them have an implied audience
or implied subject-matter of a mysterious sexually promiscuous
woman with dark features. This contrasts with the traditional
Petrarchan conceits of a fair-haired and fair-skinned lover
who is coldly aloof to the male speaker's wooing. Contrast
with the "young
man" sonnets earlier in the collection.
"Song of Dorrud"): In the last chapters of Njal's
a minor character named Dorrud sees a group of twelve
mysterious women (probably intended to be the Valkyries).
The women enter into a room and sing as they weave a
loom composed of human heads, intestines, swords, and
arrows--an idea often associated with the Norns (the
Old Norse equivalent of the Greek Fates or Roman Parcae).
Scholars traditionally refer to this section of Njal's
Saga and the women's song
as the darra∂arlo∂.
DATIVE: See discussion here.
SONG (also called an aubade):
A genre of poetry common to Europe
in which the poem is about the dawn or coming of
dawn, or it is a piece of music meant
to be sung or played outdoors at dawn. Examples include
"The year's at the spring / And day's at the morn"
from Pippa Passes or Shakespeare's "Hark! hark!
the lark." Some poems, such as John Donne's "Busy
old sun" share traits with the dawn song, and Chaucer's
Troilus and Criseyde also contains an example inside
its larger narrative.
LANGUAGE: In linguistics, a dead language is
one that does not change any more over time--it is "frozen"
historically because it is no longer used in everyday discourse,
but is instead learned only for ritual use, scholarly study,
or the preservation of an ancient literature. Classical Latin
and Sanskrit are two examples of dead languages. This situation
contrasts with a living language, in which old words die out,
new ones are added, and existing words change their meaning
continuously over time from one generation to the next, as
A. C. Baugh puts it (2).
DECADENCE, THE: A literary movement in the late Nineteenth Century associated with symbolism that
See discussion under declined
language or click here for example cases.
LANGUAGE: Also called a synthetic
language, or an inflected language,
a declined language is one in which word order is not as
important in making meaning as the use of inflections or declensions--special
endings stuck on the end of words--to indicate the case,
or how each word functions. These endings are called declensions,
a term that comes from the handwritten grammar charts used
by medieval monks who create a series of angled or declined
lines in specified patterns, and on these lines the students
would write the correct word-ending as part of grammar
exercises. Click here for further
See discussion under deconstruction.
An interpretive movement in literary theory that reached
apex in the 1970s. Deconstruction rejects absolute interpretations,
stressing ambiguities and contradictions in literature.
grew out of the linguistic principles of De Saussure who
noted that many Indo-European
languages create meaning by binary opposites.
Verbal oppositions such as good/evil, light/dark,
up/down, and high/low
show a human tendency common transculturally to create
vocabulary as pairs of opposites, with one of the two
given positive connotations and the other word arbitrarily
given negative connotations. Deconstructionists carry
principle one step further by asserting that this tendency
is endemic to all words, and hence all literature. For
they might try to complicate literary interpretations by
revealing that "heroes" and "villains" often
have overlapping traits, or else they have traits that
because of the presence of the other. Hence these concepts
are unreliable in themselves as a basis for talking about
literature in any meaningful way. Oftentimes, detractors
of deconstruction argue that deconstructionists deny the
of literature, or assert that all literature is ultimately
meaningless. It would be more accurate to assert that
deny the absolute value of literature, and assert
that all literature is ultimately incapable of offering
meaning external to the "prison-house of language,"
which always embodies oppositional ideas within itself.
Deconstruction is symptomatic in many ways of postmodernism.
In the more
radical fringes of postmodernism,
postmodern artists, dramatists, poets, and writers seek
to emphasize the conventions
of story-telling (rather than hide these conventions behind
and break away from conventions like realism, cause-and-effect,
and traditional plot in narratives. Such a text might be
"deconstructed" in a loose sense.
See also différance.
INITIAL: In medieval manuscripts, this term refers to
an introductory letter of a text division, embellished with
some type of abstract design, i.e., a design not necessarily
containing a picture (which would make it an inhabited
initial) and not necessarily containing a scene from the
story (which would make it an historiated initial).
Unlike the latter two types, the adornment
in a decorated initial has no overt connection to the material
discussed or narrated in the book's contents. Click here for
an example from Dagulf's Psalter
in order to view one. Cf.
initial and historiated
The requirement that individual characters, the characters'
actions, and the style of speech should be matched to each
other and to the genre in which they appear. This
idea was of central importance to writers and literary critics
from the time of the Renaissance up through the eighteenth
century. Lowly characters, low actions, and low style, for
instance, were thought necessary for satire. Epic literature,
on the other hand, called for characters of high estate, engaging
in great actions, and speaking using elevated, poetic diction.
The process of logic in which a thinker takes a rule
large, general category and assumes that specific individual
examples fitting within that general category obey the
rule. For instance, a general rule might be that "Objects
made of iron rust." When the logician then encounters
a shovel made of iron, he can assume deductively that
shovel made of iron will also rust just as other iron objects
do. This process is the opposite of induction. Induction
a specific example. Deduction determines the truth about
specific examples using a large general rule. Deductive
also called syllogistic thinking. See
and logical fallacies,
and the class's syllogism
DEDUCTUM CARMEN (Latin, "drawn-out song"): Ovid's term in Eclogue 6.3-5 for the type of poem he will create in his own poetry, in contrast with the older epic. He claims that a "modern" (i.e., imperial) poet of his day should not be writing epics, but instead should follow the example of Callimachus, in which the poem's narrative structure is drawn out in a manner akin to the way a thread is drawn out in spinning, so the story become a fine, tight thread pulled out of the original chaotic tangle of unprocessed wool (Feeney xxiii). This method contrasts with the epic, in which a single narrative focusing on kings and conquerors broadly dominates the entire poem.
In Noam Chomsky's transformational
grammar, the biological
"hardwiring" in the brain that gives children the capacity
to use language, as opposed to the surface structure,
i.e., the incidentals of the language children actually
The literary theoretical term "defamiliarization" is
an English translation for Viktor Shklovsky's Russian
Shklovsky coined the phrase in 1917 in his essay "Art
as Technique." In this artistic technique,
a writer, poet, or
and forces the audience to see them in an unfamiliar
way or from a strange or unusual perspective. It is especially common
fiction. Although Shklovsky coined this
term to mark a distinction between poetic language and
practical, communicative language, he and later critics
argued it applied to all effective art, which ideally
would force the viewer/reader to perceive the subject
in a new way.
"God"): An intellectual religious movement en
vogue through the late seventeenth century up to the
late eighteenth century concerned with rational rather
faith-based approaches to religion and understanding God.
The movement is often associated with the Enlightenment
and Free Masonry. In general, Deists prided themselves on
free-thinking and logic and tended to reject any specific
dogma, so it is difficult to define the beliefs of an individual
Deist without referring to generalities. John Locke's mechanistic philosophy and Newtonian
physics heavily influenced many Deists, so they saw the universe as a place ruled rationally
by cause and effect. They tended to see God as an impersonal
but intelligent force, a first cause that created the universe
and set it in motion, who then allowed life and matter to
proceed on its own without further need for divine intervention.
The logic is that, if God is infallible, omniscient and
logically he would pre-establish his design in the world
in such a way that he would not need to tinker constantly
it or adjust it through supernatural
intervention. (Such activity indicates an error, a change
of mind, indecision, or some
of imperfection on God's part.)
Deists thought this divine being to be completely transcendent--separate from
rather than contained within it. Deistic writings often
refer to the Deity using metaphors of the architect,
the mason, or some other skilled worker who measures
universe with geometric and mechanical precision. Thus,
a common Deist metaphor compares the universe to a perfectly
designed watch or clock--a construct created with
complex gears and moving parts, then wound up, and
finally released since it can operate on its own without
any more effort
the creator's part. Deists rejected the belief that an
creator would need to intervene via miracles
and individual revelation. Generally, Deism rejected trinitarian
doctrine in favor of seeing God as a unified, singular
They usually viewed Christ as a holy and wise man, but
discounted the idea of him performing miracles or being
of God. To distinguish between the Deistic idea of monotheism
and that espoused by traditional, dogmatic religions,
they usually referred to the Godhead as "the Deity" or
"the Creator" (as opposed to conventional labels "God," or "Jehovah" or "Christ").
They tended to see the divine as impersonal, as removed
humanity and unmoved by prayers, sacrifices, or other acts
of spiritual bribery. They thought the rational and
nature of the divine was better seen in the perfect orbits
of planets and the precision of geometry and the predictable
harmonies of mathematics, rather than in prayer, sermons,
speaking in tongues, or other irrational displays of
reality. They thought that God was best worshipped by good
works, effective charity, and harmonious interaction
one's fellow humans rather than by empty religious ritual,
church attendance, or financial support of some "priestly
caste," as one Deist wrote.
Examples of Enlightenment
figures with Deistic tendencies include Thomas Jefferson,
Franklin, Voltaire, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, John Toland,
Antony Cooper, Thomas Wooston, Matthew Tindal, Peter Annet,
and others. The case of Thomas Jefferson is particularly
of interest, given his editing of the "Jefferson
harmonized edition of the four gospels blended into one text,
but one in which Jefferson systematically deletes all
to Christ's miracles and the supernatural, focusing only
on moral precepts and eradicating what Jefferson calls "enthusiasms"
and "superstitions." Copies can be purchased from
online bookstores under the title The Morals of Jesus
of Nazareth, for students interested in tracing Deist
DEMAND D'AMOUR (French, "demand of love"): A medieval motif common in French and continental courtly literature in which a hypothetical situation would appear as a "love-problem," and the listeners would attempt to resolve the issue through debate. Such debates may have been common in real-life medieval party-games or flirtations among the nobility before they became literary motifs. By the late medieval period, many collections of such hypothetical situations and accompanying questions had appeared, such as the Middle English Demaundes of Love. Chaucer's narrators in the Knight's Tale, the Franklin's Tale, and The Parliament of Fowels explicitly ask their audiences to make judgments of this sort at various points in the tale, and the marriage group as a whole in The Canterbury Tales implicitly asks the readers to explore what makes a happy marriage.
DEMESURE (French, "lack
In French chivalric literature, the equivalent of Latin immoderatio--excessive
actions and uncontrolled passions such as those of Roland
in the Chanson de Roland. This trait
the mesure (the ability to follow
a golden mean and not go to unreasonable extremes). In
the literature of courtly love, a frequent debate is whether
courtly lover should have mesure or demesure--and which emotion is more worthy of his beloved.
The minimal, strict definition of a word as found in a dictionary,
disregarding any historical or emotional connotation. Contrast
A French word meaning "unknotting" or "unwinding," denouement
refers to the outcome or result of a complex situation or
sequence of events, an aftermath or resolution that usually
occurs near the final stages of the plot. It is the unraveling
of the main dramatic complications in a play, novel or other
work of literature. In drama,
the term is usually applied to tragedies
or to comedies
in their plot. This resolution usually takes place in the
final chapter or scene, after the climax is over. Usually
the denouement ends as quickly as the writer can
arrange it--for it occurs only after all the conflicts
have been resolved.
SUFFIX: A -d
or -t ending typically
added to English weak
verbs (i.e, "regular verbs") in the
past tense and the past participle form. For instance, "I
walk, I walked, I have walked." Here, the -d
ending is a dental suffix. This contrasts with the English
verbs (i.e., so-called "irregular verbs")
which indicate the past tense and the participle form by a
change in the stem's vowel. For instance, "I
break, I broke, I have broken."
Logic of the sort championed by French philosopher René
Descarte (1596-1650). This logic involves (1) a
dualistic split between the mind and physical matter,
and (2) radical
doubt concerning the evidence of the senses. Descarte
attempted to prove the existence of himself, the physical
world, and God without appealing to any sensory evidence
at all. His initial step is the logical statement,
cogito, ergo sum ("I think, therefore
By this statement, Descarte indicates that
the act of thinking by itself shows the thinker cannot
be illusory; i.e., one cannot trick a non-existent
when it doesn't. The mere fact an "I" exists
to ask the question of its existence conclusively proves
"I" must really be present behind the thought.
INTO THE UNDERWORLD:
An archetype or motif in
religion, mythology, or literature in which the protagonist must
descend into the realm of the dead (usually located beneath
the earth in hell, Elysium,
or Tartarus) and then return to the realm of the living
at the earth's surface, often after rescuing a trapped
soul or seeking the advice of the dead. Sometimes, a
serve as a guide on this journey. This descent is often called katabasis in Greek mystery religions.
This idea appears in
many different cultures. In Mesopotamian legend, the
goddess Inanna must enter Queen Erishikegal's realm of
the dead unclothed, and she can only return if another
soul is chosen to take her place. In Egyptian mythology,
souls descending into the next
life must appear before a judge who takes his scales
and weighs their hearts against a single feather.
Greek examples include Orpheus's expedition to rescue
Persephone to make her the queen of his realm, or Odysseus's
necromantic conversation with the shades of his old
who regain their power of speech after drinking sacrificial
blood from a lamb. In Roman literature such as the Aeneid,
Virgil describes how the Sibyl instructs Aeneas
to use a golden bough as a bribe so Charon will
ferry Aeneas across the
In one of the most
spectacular medieval treatments of the motif, Dante has
a persona of
himself undertake such
through a multi-layered hell in The Inferno.
Other medieval examples include Saint Patrick's
Purgatory and Sir
Orfeo. Medieval writers such
as the "Vatican mythographers" often treat
all sorts of mythological narratives as symbolic
of the descent into the underworld. One example is
battle with the minotaur, in which medieval readers
equated Theseus with Christ, the bull with Satan,
and the labyrinth with the underworld. In the
early apocryphal books of the Bible, such as the Gospel
of Nicodimas, Christ descends into hell during
the three days after
his crucifixion and frees the souls there in the
harrowing of hell, an apocryphal belief that still
the Apostle's Creed today even though most Protestant
groups reject apocryphal texts in favor of those
books of the bible considered canonical today.
Other writers adapt
the motif for purely symbolic effects. The cyberpunk novel Snow Crash includes Juanita Marquez as
a typological figure of the goddess Inanna; Juanita descends
a figurative land-of-the-dead by infecting herself with
on a raft of refugees, and her rescuer ("Hiro Protagonist")
must guide her back to the land-of-the living.
and Jungian critics might read these descent motifs
psychologically as a
of the subconscious
mind, and point out the images of rebirth that usually
accompany the hero's return. See also the Other
A grammatical treatise or dictionary is said to be descriptivist
if it has the goal of describing nonjudgmentally how a group
of people tends to use language, rather than the goal of fashioning
guidelines or "rules" for grammar, spelling, and
word use. Contrast with prescriptivist.
NOVEL: A mystery novel focusing on a brilliant investigator--often
a detective--solving a crime. See mystery
EX MACHINA (from Greek theos apo mechanes):
An unrealistic or unexpected intervention to rescue the protagonists
or resolve the story's conflict. The term means "The god out
of the machine," and it refers to stage machinery. A classical
Greek actor, portraying one of the Greek gods in a play, might
be lowered out of the sky onto the stage and then use his
divine powers to solve all the mortals' problems. The term
is a negative one, and it often implies a lack of skill on
the part of the writer. In a modern example of deus ex
machina, a writer might reach a climactic moment in which
a band of pioneers were attacked by bandits. A cavalry brigade's
unexpected arrival to drive away the marauding bandits at
the conclusion, with no previous hint of the cavalry's existence,
would be a deus ex machina conclusion. Such endings
mean that heroes are unable to solve their own problems in
a pleasing manner, and they must be "rescued" by
the writer himself through improbable means. In some genres,
the deus ex machina ending is actually a positive
and expected trait. In various vitae, or Saint's Lives,
divine intervention is one of the normal climactic moments
of the narrative to bring about the rescue of a saint or to
cause a mass conversion among conventional pagan characters.
A sidekick who accompanies the main protagonist,
the main character or hero, in a narrative. In The Advenures
of Huckleberry Finn, for instance, the slave Jim is a
deuteragonist and Huck Finn is the protagonist. The deuteragonist
may be either round or flat as a character, and he often serves
as a foil
to the protagonist as well. Note that classical scholars often
use the word deuteragonist in a more restricted sense.
In the oldest form of classical Greek drama, plays originally
consisted of a single character standing on stage speaking
with the chorus. Later dramatists introduced the innovation
of a second actor (the deuteragonist) who stood on stage and
donned a variety of masks to represent the other various characters
besides the hero. A still later innovation was the tritagonist,
a third character on stage which allowed more complex interactions
of dialogue. (See further discussion under character,
and see protagonist,
LAW: The belief that God could choose to
wait several generations before punishing a sinful
race for the sins of
the fathers. Thus, the children or descendants of the original
criminals or evildoers would suffer the consequences
ancestors' choices regardless of their own piety or virtue.
The idea originates in an Old Testament Biblical
in Deuteronomy 5:9: ". . . For I am the
Lord thy God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon
unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate
A similar passage in Ezekiel 18:2 and Jeremiah 31:29-30
fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth
are set on edge") was also read as an echo of this
idea, though in general, the doctrine is referred to as Deuteronomic
by Renaissance theologians. Renaissance historians, especially
those influenced by Tudor propaganda, saw the Wars
of the Roses and the subsequent series of incompetent
kings (like Henry VI) and cruel tyrants (like Richard
as God's punishment descending upon Britain for allowing
Henry IV to usurp the throne from a legitimate ruler
three generations earlier. Click here for PDF
handout of this material.
DIACHRONIC (Grk, "across time"): An analysis
of literature, history, or linguistics is diachronic if it
examines changes or developments in a single area or discipline
over the course of many centuries. This term is the opposite
of a synchronic
analysis, which limits itself to studying a single moment
or time in history, but compares the traits or developments
across a wide area of geography or a wide number of disciplines.
(from Greek, "cleft" or "gash"; also called
Epizeuxis or repetition): Uninterrupted repetition,
or repetition with only one or two words between each repeated
phrase. Typically, the purpose of diacope is to show
strong emotion. Peacham writes, "My heart is fixed, O
God, my heart is fixed." A character in a gothic novel
might cry out, "Oh, horror, horror, horror!" Probably the
most dramatic use of diacope is found in Edgar Allan
Poe's "The Bells," in which Poe writes,
the swinging and the ringing
Of the bells, bells, bells--
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells--
Diacope is an example of a rhetorical
scheme. Do note that some rhetoricians
such as Arthur Quinn and Richard Lanham suggest that diacope
can, in another secondary meaning, be used interchangeably
An accent or change to a normal alphabetical letter to differentiate
its pronunciation. Click
here for examples.
The language of a particular district, class, or group of
persons. The term dialect encompasses the
sounds, spelling, grammar, and diction employed by a specific
people as distinguished from other persons either geographically
or socially. Dialect is a major technique of characterization
that reveals the social or geographic status of a character.
For example, Mark Twain uses exaggerated dialect in his Huckleberry
Finn to differentiate between characters:
"We's safe, Huck, we's safe! Jump up and crack yo' heels.
Dat's de good ole Cairo at las', I jis knows it."
"I'll take the canoe and go see, Jim. It mightn't be, you
Other famous uses of dialect
include the novels Silas Mariner and Middlemarch
by George Eliot. The act of intentionally misspelling a word
to create an artistic effect or the effect of dialect is called
Old-English and Middle
English also had unique regional dialects. In Old English,
the four major regional dialects were West Saxon, Kentish,
Mercian, and Northumbrian. As the centuries went by, West
Saxon became increasingly the standard. In
Middle English, the major dialects included Southern, Kentish,
West Midlands, East Midlands, and Northern.
Modern English in the
British isles shows signs of both regional dialects and class
dialects. Nearly each British county has its own peculiarities,
and as A. C. Baugh notes, sometimes as many as three dialectal
regions may be distinguished within the boundaries of a single
shire (316). The diversity of dialects in the isles is well
documented since the publication of the Survey of English
Dialects in 1962.
Modern American English
regional dialects include Eastern New England (Bostonian),
New York, Inland Northern (Great Lakes), North Midland (covers
southern New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, north Delaware,
and Maryland), Mid-southern (West Virginia, North Carolina,
Kentucky and Tennessee), Southern (Virginia, South Carolina
lowlands, Louisianna), General American, and Black
English Vernacular. See also caste
dialect, regional or geographical
dialect, and ethnic
The lines spoken by a character or characters in a play,
story, or novel, especially a conversation between two
characters, or a literary work that takes the form of
such a discussion (e.g., Plato's Republic).
Bad dialogue is pointless. Good dialogue either provides characterization
or advances the plot.
In plays, dialogue often includes within it hints akin
stage directions. For instance, if one character asks, "Why
are you hitting me?" the reader can assume that on
stage another character is striking the speaker. Noticing
is particularly important in classical drama and in Shakespeare's
plays since explicit stage directions are often missing.
"sparkling decoration," cognate with diamond, pronounced dee
oh MON tay):
A genre of
of a single unrhymed and untitled stanza with
a visual structure shaped
like a diamond. The poem is designed to be seen printed
read aloud. The diamante stanza has seven lines and is
normally used as children's poetry; accordingly, many
elementary teachers are fond of using it to teach children
parts of speech,
antonyms, and simple poetic structure. Traditionally,
the stanza structure is as follows:
one consists of a single noun.
two consists of two adjectives that describe the noun, usually
separated by a comma.
three consists of three gerunds or present participles associated
with the noun in line
four consists of four nouns in any order. Two nouns are associated
loosely with the noun appearing
in line one.
nouns--while somehow similar in nature with
the other nouns in this line--are associated loosely
later appearing in line seven.
of three gerunds or present participles associated
with the final noun later appearing in line
six consists of two adjectives that describe the final noun
of a single noun. This noun traditionally is an antonym
or a word contrasting with
the noun appearing
in line one,
or a noun that
contrasts with that noun appearing
in line one--though some modern
variants merely use
for the first
line or even even repeat the noun
from line one.
This sounds complicated, but the overall
design is simple to see in a complete poem. Here is a
Scorching, burning, laughing
Summer, daylight, moonbeams, shadows
Whispering, rustling, sleeping
WORK: In spite of how unpleasant the word sounds, diaper
work is actually a common, beautiful design in medieval manuscripts.
Here is Kathleen Scott's succinct summary of diaper work:
type of decorative background in which a series
lines intersect at a 90-degree angle with another
series of parallel lines to form a diamond lattice
or a square lattice,
with the internal surfaces rendered in colours
and gold; usually used in miniatures." The overall result is much
like the effect of modern wallpaper, in which a pattern appears
over and over again in a slightly different location. This
type of diaper work is often used as the background for medieval
An informal record of a person's private life and day-to-day
and concerns. Conventionally, daily entries take epistolary form
with the introductory phrase, "Dear Diary." Since
the subject-matter is so intimate, the authors of diaries
usually do not
contents to be published--though many famous ones have
been published posthumously--including the diary of
Sameul Pepys (complete with all his sexual indiscretions)
or the diary of William
Bird. Other important diaries include those of George
Fox, John Wesley, and Fanny Burney in England, and (in
America) Sarah K. Knight. Contrast with memoir and autobiography.
The choice of a particular word as opposed to others. A writer
could call a rock formation by many words--a stone, a boulder,
an outcropping, a pile of rocks, a cairn, a mound, or even
an "anomalous geological feature." The analytical reader then
faces tough questions. Why that particular choice of words?
What is the effect of that diction? The word choice a writer
makes determines the reader's reaction to the object of description,
and contributes to the author's style
Compare with concrete
diction and abstract
diction, above. It is also possible to separate diction
into high or formal diction, which involves
elaborate, technical, or polysyllabic vocabulary and careful
attention to the proprieties of grammar, and low or
informal diction, which involves conversational or
familiar language, contractions, slang,
and grammatical errors designed to convey a relaxed tone.
LITERATURE: Writing that is "preachy" or
seeks overtly to convince a reader of a particular
point or lesson.
Medieval homilies and Victorian moral essays are often
held up as examples of didactic literature, but one
that all literature is didactic to one extent or another
since the written word frequently implies or suggests
attitude. Sometimes, the lesson is overtly religious,
as in the case of sermons or in literature like Milton's Paradise
Lost, which seeks to "justify God's ways
In a more subtle way, much of Romantic literature hints
at a critique of urbanized and mechanized life in 19th-century
London. See homily,
DIERESIS (also called an umlaut):
A diacritic mark (¨)
to show that vowels represent sounds of different quality--Algeo
provides German Brüder ("brothers")
and Bruder ("brother") as an example (316).
In English, this marking indicates that the second of two
vowels is pronounced separately from the earlier vowel. For
instance, coöperate is pronounced as four syllables,
not three, and the dieresis helps indicate this.
Jacque Derrida's French term (untranslatable in English),
which puns on the verb
"to differ" and "to defer," which he uses as an antonym
for logocentrism (Cuddon 246). Basically, Derrida's
starting spot is the linguist Sausure's theory
about the arbitrary nature of language (i.e., that the
sounds we use a "sign" has no logical connection with
the object it refers to). Derrida then pushes this idea
to its logical extreme, "that to differ or differentiate
is also to defer, postpone or withhold [meaning]" (246).
Thus absolute meaning continuously and endlessly remains
one step removed from the system of signs/words/symbols
we use to discuss meaning. Cf. deconstruction.
Any use of two alphabetical letters to indicate a single phonetic
sound. For instance, in phonograph,
the letters <ph> spell
the /f/ sound. Likewise, in the
word dumb, the letters
<mb> create the
/m/ sound, and in pick,
the <ck> creates the
/k/ sound. English regularly uses digraphs like <ch>,
<th> and <sh>
to indicate sounds for which there is no single symbol in
the commonly used alphabet. Contrast with dipthong.
DIME NOVEL: Cheap or sensationalist publications, especially the series begun by E. F. Beadle in 1860--consisting of reprints of thrilling tales, violent action, brief romance, and episodes from famous wars and dramatic historical periods such as the American Civil War or the Frontier period. These dime novels were usually paperbound and sold for 10 cents in the 1920s in America, hence the common nick-name (Shipley 169). The first major example was Ann Sophia's Stephens's Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter, which sold over 300,000 copies in 1860 and remained immensely popular for a decade. Other famous authors who produced dime novels included Edward L. Wheeler, who created "Deadwood Dick," and J. R. Coryell, who created "Nick Carter," a detective who appeared in over one thousand separate short stories written by a dozen ghost writers up through the 1960s (Holman 162). Also called a yellow-back (for the cheap paper it was printed on), the dime novel as a mass market publication was the next generation of the earlier British "penny dreadfuls" of previous years.
A line containing only two metrical feet. See meter
The heraldic practice of combining two animals in a coat-of-arms
into a single composite creature.
Any affix meaning "small." It can suggest cuteness
or an emotional attachment. An example is the word piglet,
where the diminutive alters the normal word pig.
DING-DONG THEORY: The linguistic
theory that language began as instinctive responses to stimuli
The Athenian religious festivals celebrating Dionysus
Dionysus (Roman Bacchus) was the god of intoxication,
celebration, powerful emotion, and loss of self-control.
At his festival,
priests would sacrifice goats on the theater stage, and
then actors would perform tragic plays in honor of the
with brief comedies. (The word tragedy itself
may originate in the Greek tragos--a goat song,
or possibly in a pun on "billygoat singers.")
In classical prosody, dipody describes the combination of
two feet into another single metrical unit. Often used
interchangeably with the more general term syzygy,
this dipody involves the substitution of two normal feet,
usually iambs or trochees, under a more powerful beat, so
that a "galloping" or "rolling" rhythm
results. See iamb,
Dipody is common in children's rhymes, nursery rhymes, and
J. A. Cuddon lists two examples in his Dictionary of Literary
Terms and Literary Theory that are too lengthy to reproduce
here, but serve to illustrate the effect well.
(from Greek dipthongus): A complex speech sound in
which a speaker begins to articulate one vowel and moves to
another vowel or semi-vowel sound by switching the position
of tongue and lips. For example, in the common name Roy,
the oy makes a diphthong in that the vowel positions
shift from one noise to another. The term diphthong
should not be confused with digraph
(see above). Diphthongs are phonetic (dealing with the sounds
of spoken words), and digraphs are graphemic (dealing with
the act of recording words on the page as symbols or letters).
The change of a normal vowel into a diphthong.
See discussion of elegy,
SPACE: According to Stephen Greenblatt,
this is "A
central opening or alcove concealed behind a curtain in the
center of the frons
scenae. The curtain could be drawn aside
to "discover" tableaux such as Portia's
caskets, the body of Polonius, or the statue of Hermione.
Shakespeare appears to have used this stage device only sparingly"
This term in linguistics refers to the ability of language
to indicate or signify things not physically present.
DISSIMILATION: A linguistic development in which
two sounds become less alike. Algeo (317) offers the example
of diphtheria, in which
the final /f/ sound in the syllable <diph>
tends to be hard to pronounce separately from the <th> following it. Through dissimilation, the normal pronunciation of /dIf/ becomes /dIp/.
DISTRIBUTIVE: One of several possible numbering systems in a language's grammar. For a discussion of distributives, see multiplicatives.
DISTYCH (also spelled distich):
The technical term for a two-line group in which a pair
lines of different lengths together compose or express
a complete idea (Wheeler 38). In Greek elegies, these
distychs are usually rhymed and composed with one line
hexameter followed by a line in dactylic pentameter.
In Hebrew poetry such as the Psalms or Proverbs, the
lines are typically unrhymed but contain elements of
parallelism such as synonymous repetitions, antithesis,
anaphora, or epistrophe (Wheeler 37-38).
An ancient Athenian poetic form sung during the Dionysia
(see above). The first tragedies may have originated from
the dithyrambs. See tragedy.
Unidiomatic or crude pidgin
Latin intermixed with local tongues. An example of
dog latin appears in scene eight of Marlowe's Doctor
when Robin the servant tries to invoke spirits: "Sanctobulorum
Periphrasticon--nay, I'll tickle you, vinter--look to
the goblet, Rafe--Polypragmos Belseborams framanto pacostiphos
tostis Mephastophilis" (23-26). Cf. macaronic
DOLONEIA: A Greek nickname for the tenth book of Homer's Iliad, assumed by many scholars to be a late addition inserted long after the Homeric age. Many editions of Homer leave out this book entirely.
(Italian, "sweet new style"): Dante
uses this term to describe the style of lyric poetry he
to create in the Purgatorio. He and other Italian
poets like Guinicelli and Cavalcanti using this style
poets. The most important feature of this style is an attitude
toward women and earthly love derived from troubadour
poetry. This attitude depicts women as the ultimate form
of God's beauty, and women are held to inspire a spiritual
in their male admirers that will ultimately lead them
to Divine Love. This attempt to reconcile or combine sacred
love contrasts starkly with monastic literature treating
women as an evil temptation to good men.
DONATISM: The term donatism
is an eponym
taken from a bishop in North Africa named Donatus. During
period, Donatus was upset by the readiness of
the mainstream church to welcome back into its fold clergy
who had temporarily renounced their faith in fear of Roman
persecution. Donatus believed that such individuals were not
fit to be priests, and that church rituals led by such individuals
were worthless. This developed into the heresy
of "donatism" in the medieval period. Donatists
argued that baptisms, marriages, confessions, funerals, communion
services, and other church rituals were invalid if the priest
performing the ceremony was in a state of sin. Thus, the entire
ministry of these lapsed clergy was considered invalid by
these donatists. Accordingly, donatists declared that anyone
"married" by a sinning priest was actually fornicating,
and anyone who confessed and received absolution from evil
clergy never actually received forgiveness of sins. Such people
would need to have the rituals performed again by a priest
in a state of grace.
In contrast, the orthodox
Catholic belief (as set down by Saint Augustine) declared
that priests were necessary instruments of the Holy Spirit,
but it was the Holy Spirit itself that supplied a binding
spiritual efficacy to church rituals. Accordingly, any rituals
such as confession, marriage, or baptism received by a devout
worshipper in an ordained church were still valid regardless
of whether the priest performing the rites was himself in
a state of grace. In Chaucer's "Pardoner's Tale,"
one of the issues raised by the
Pardoner is the question of whether or
not the Pardoner's indulgences have any spiritual efficacy since the Pardoner is a self-confessed cheat and trickster.
Ironically, the Pardoner takes an orthodox position, declaring
a "ful vicious man" can still tell a moral tale,
and he argues that those who buy his fake relics still benefit
spiritually from the purchase even if the relics themselves are fakes.
(French, "given"): The assumptions upon which a
writer constructs a work of literature. Some common examples
include the assumption that young love is fickle, that society
is bleak or dangerous for survivors of warfare, that guilt
is inescapable, that following one's heart (or head) leads
to happiness (or heartbreak), and so on. Contrast with cliché
DOSBARTH GWYNEDD: Also known as the Venodotian Code or the "four and twenty measures," the Dosbarth Gwynedd are an ancient and complex set of metrical rules for Welsh poetry associated with the Gwynedd region (north Wales) in contrast with the newer Dosbarth Morgannwg, a newer tradition (15th century) associated with the region of Glamorganshire. In general, the Dosbarth Gwynedd are considered the standard or "authentic" verse tradition, even though most modern Welsh poets tend to ignore this incredibly complex tradition and concentrate on smaller, simpler forms like the cywydd and the englyn.
DOSBARTH MORGANNWG: See discussion under Dosbarth Gwynedd.
DACTYL: A comic verse written
with two quatrains, with each line written in dactylic dimeter.
The second line may be a name, and the sixth or seventh line
may be a single word. J. A. Cuddon's poem, "Nicholas
Williamson," illustrates the technique:
Sat in the bathtub and
Scratched at his nose.
Seldom was schoolboy so
Gifted with flexible
ENTENDRE (French, "double meaning"):
The deliberate use of ambiguity in a phrase or image--especially
involving sexual or humorous meanings.
DOUBLE NEGATIVE: Two (or more) negatives used
for emphasis, e.g., "I don't want no candy" as opposed
to "I don't want any candy." Prescriptivist grammarians
recommend avoiding double negatives in formal writing, but
historians note this rule is of fairly recent manufacture
in English history. Double negatives were perfectly acceptable
in English up until the Enlightenment. For instance, the medieval
author Chaucer routinely uses two to four double negatives
in his descriptions--such as the Knight in The Canterbury
nevere yet no
vileynye ne sayde / In al his
lyf unto no maner wight"
PLOT: When an author
uses two related plots within a single narrative.
See futher discussion under subplot
RHYME: A rhyme that involves two syllables rather than
one. For instance, rhyming lend/send
is a single rhyme, in which each word consists of a single
syllable. However, the words lending/sending
constitute a double rhyme because two rhyming syllables are
used. In English, most double rhymes create a feminine
ending. Contrast with triple
rhyme and feminine ending (under meter).
DOUBLE SUPERLATIVE: Double use of the superlative
degree--such as the word foremost,
which uses both the superlative sufix -m
In linguistics, a pair of words that derive from the same etymon,
but since they were adapted at different times or by different
routes, take on two different
meanings. For instance, the Modern English words chief
and chef both come
from the same French word, originally meaning roughly "guy
in charge." Chief
was adopted, however, in a time when Norman French was associated
with military power, and thus the word had contexts of "leader
of a war band." The same word was adopted centuries
later, however, in a time when Parisian French was associated
culture and culinary arts. Now, chef
came to mean in English, "leader of a kitchen."
Thus, the same word adopted twice can come to gain two different
Greenblatt describes this process as, "The
common [Renaissance] practice of having one actor play
multiple roles, so
that a play with a large cast of characters might be performed
by a relatively small company" (1139).
LAW: A helpful mnemonic phrase, "blood
is good food" useful for remembering
sound shifts in the vowel o
from Middle English to Modern English. Originally, between
1200-1400, the letter <o>
often indicated a long Middle English /o:/
but it rapidly developed into /u/,
as in food,
roof, and room,
and root. However,
in the 1400s, in some words, the vowel shortened and
to the sound in blood
and flood. In still
other words, the letter retained the long vowel /o:/
until about 1700, but the vowel
was then shortened without being unrounded, giving us
found in good, foot,
and book. Thus,
the standard pronunciation is as follows:
good (c. 1700 et
food (c. 1200-1400)
A composition in prose or verse presenting, in pantomime
dialogue, a narrative involving conflict between a character
or characters and some external or internal force (see conflict).
Playwrights usually design dramas for presentation on
in front of an audience. Aristotle called drama "imitated
human action." Drama may have originated in religious ceremonies.
Thespis of Attica (sixth century BCE) was the first recorded
composer of a tragedy. Tragedies in their earliest stage
were performed by a single actor who interacted with the
The playwright Aeschylus added a second actor on the stage
to allow additional conflict and dialogue. Sophocles and
added a third (tritagonist). Medieval drama may have evolved
independently from rites commemorating the birth and death
the late medieval period and the early Renaissance, drama
gradually altered to the form we know today. The mid-sixteenth
century in England in particular was one of the greatest
periods of world drama. In traditional Greek drama, as
Aristotle, a play was to consist of five acts and follow
the three dramatic unities.
In more recent drama (i.e., during the last two centuries),
plays have frequently consisted of three acts, and playwrights
have felt more comfortable disregarding the confines of
rules involving verisimilitude.
See also unities,
play, and mystery
play. An individual work of drama is called a play.
MONOLOGUE: A poem in which a poetic speaker addresses
either the reader or an internal listener at length. It is
similar to the soliloquy
in theater, in that both a dramatic monologue and a soliloquy
often involve the revelation of the innermost thoughts and
feelings of the speaker. Two famous examples are Browning's
"My Last Duchess" and "Soliloquy of the Spanish
Cloister." Cf. interior
monologue and monologue.
DRAMATIC POINT OF VIEW:
PERSONAE (Latin: "people of the play"):
A list of the complete cast, i.e., the various characters
that will appear in the play. This list usually appears before
the text of the main play begins in printed copies of the
text. In late periods of drama, the dramatis personae
often included a brief description of the character's personality
or appearance. In the First Folio, such lists appeared at
the end of some Shakespearean plays, but not at the end of
all of them.
Once, the aboriginal tongue of all India, but now spoken primarily
in only the southern regions of that subcontinent.
VISION (Visio): A genre
of poetry popular in the Middle Ages. By convention, a fictionalized
version of the writer goes to sleep in a pleasant, natural
springtime setting (May mornings being particularly popular).
He has a dream that he relates to the reader. During the dream,
he often encounters a mentor or spirit
guide who takes him on a journey in which he
encounters various historical or fictional figures engaged
in allegorical activities. Through his interactions, the dreamer
learns valuable spiritual, political, or intellectual truths
and is transformed by the experience. One of the earliest
literary works to influence the genre is Macrobius's
(c. 400 CE) commentary on the Somnium Scipionis. Medieval
examples from the continent include the Roman de la Rose
(13th century), and Dante's Divine Comedy. Medieval
examples from the British Isles include the Welsh Dream
of Rhonabwy and English works such as Piers Plowman,
Pearl, and Chaucer's The Book of the Duchess,
The House of Fame, and the Prologue to the Legend
of Good Women. More recent versions include Bunyan's prose
narrative called The Pilgrim's Progress, Lewis Carroll's
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, James Joyce's Finnegan's
Wake, and the film adaptation of L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of
Oz. Compare with reverdie and aisling.
DUAL: In contrast to the singular and plural forms
of nouns and pronouns in Modern English, Old English had a
third category, the dual inflection for pronouns. This inflection
referred to exactly two people or things. A dual form might
refer to to the speaker and one other listener in the audience,
for example. The Old English dual personal pronouns included
("we two ")
("us two ")
or ("the two of ours, ours both")
("the two of you" i.e., "ye two")
A number of these pronouns
appear in The Wife's Lament. In Modern English,
the old dual forms survive in only a few other linguistic
as the impersonal pronouns both,
either, and neither.
Several other Indo-European languages have or had a
between the dual and the plural--including Egyptian, Arabic,
Sanskrit, Greek, and Old Gothic, as Vincent Hopper notes
(4). Other non-Indo-European languages like Hebrew also make
Anthologies of Irish bardic poetry from between 1150-1500
CE. An example
Book of Lecan (Trinity College Manuscript 1363).
SHOWS: These mimed scenes before a play or before
each act in a play summarized or foreshadowed the coming events
of the plot. These shows were common in early Renaissance
drama, but Greenblatt notes that they already seemed old-fashioned
in Shakespeare's time. Still, writers employed them up until
the 1640s (Greenblatt 1139).
DUPLE METER: Poetry consisting of two syllables to
a metrical foot, and one foot to each line. It is a rare form.
One example noted in J. A. Cuddon's Penguin Dictionary
of Literary Terms comes from Herrick's "Upon His
DVOYEVERIE (Russian, "double faith"): The confusion or mixture of pagan and Christian elements in medieval Russian folklore (Harkins 118).
A Welsh term for a form of fanciful conceit
in which a string of sequential metaphors compares an object
to a number of diverse things--often using compound words in a manner similar to the Anglo-Saxon or Old Norse kenning. The 14th century Welsh poet
Dafydd ap Gwilym is particularly known for this poetic technique.
RHYME: Another term for feminine metrical endings. See discussion
CHARACTER: Also called a round character, a dynamic
character is one whose personality changes or evolves over
the course of a narrative or appears to have the capacity
for such change. The round character contrasts with the flat
character, a character who serves a specific or minor
literary function in a text, and who may be a stock
character or simplified stereotype. Typically, a short
story has one round character and several flat ones. However,
in longer novels and plays, there may be many round characters.
The terms flat and round were first coined
by the novelist E. M. Forster in his study, Aspects of
the Novel. See flat
character, and stock
(from Greek, dys topos, "bad place"):
The opposite of a utopia,
a dystopia is an imaginary society in fictional writing that
represents, as M. H. Abrams puts it, "a very
unpleasant imaginary world in which ominous tendencies of
our present social, political, and technological order are
projected in some disastrous future culmination" (Glossary
218). For instance, while a utopia presents readers with a
place where all the citizens are happy and ruled by a virtuous,
efficient, rational government, a dystopia presents readers
with a world where all citizens are universally unhappy, manipulated,
and repressed by a sinister, sadistic totalitarian state.
This government exists at best to further its own power and
at worst seeks actively to destroy its own citizens' creativity,
health, and happiness. Examples of fictional dystopias include
Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's
1984, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale,
and Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed.
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OF THIS PAGE
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
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Algeo, John and Thomas Pyles.
The Origin and Development of the English Language. 5th edition.
Baugh, A. C. and
Thomas Cable. A History of
the English Language. 6th edition. Boston: Pearson Publishing, 2013.
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,
Catholic University of America
Editorial Staff. The New Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Corbett, Edward P. J. Classical
Rhetoric for the Modern Student. 3rd edition. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990.
Crow, Martin and
Virginia E. Leland. "A Chronology
of Chaucer's Life and Times." As condensed and reproduced
in Larry Benson's The Canterbury Tales, Complete. Boston: Houghton
Mifflin Company, 2000. xxiii-xxv.
Cuddon, J. A. The
Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. London: Penguin
Damrosch, David, gen. ed. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 2nd Compact Edition. Volume A. New York: Pearson, 2004. 3 Vols.
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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,
Elkhadem, Saad. The York Dictionary Literary Terms and Their Origin: English, French, German, Spanish. York P, 1976.
Feeney, Denis. "Introduction." Ovid: Metamorphóses Trans. David Raeburn. London: Penguin Books, 2004.
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Giroux, Joan. The Haiku
Form. New York: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1974. Reprinted New York:
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Guerin, Wilfred L., et
al. "Glossary." A Handbook of Critical Approaches to
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Hopper, Vincent Foster.
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