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Literary Terms and Definitions: M

This page is under perpetual construction! It was last updated January 5, 2017.

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]

MABINOGI (Welsh, "Four Branches"): The four branches or four parts of The Mabinogion, a medieval collection of Welsh myths and legends important in Celtic studies generally and in Arthurian legends more specifically.

MACHIAVELLIAN: As an adjective, the word refers generally to sneaky, ruthless, and deceitful behavior, especially in regard to a ruler obsessed with power who puts on a surface veneer of honor and trustworthy behavior in order to achieve evil ends. The term originates in a treatise known as The Prince. This work was written by Niccoló Machiavelli, an early sixteenth-century political advisor who worked for the Borgia family in Italy. In contrast to the medieval ideal of the ruler as God's holy deputy and dispenser of justice, Machiavelli stressed that effective rulers often must engage in evil (or at least immoral) activities to ensure the stability of their rule. He suggests that, based on the evidence of history and his own personal observations, the rulers that have remained in power have not been kindly, benevolent men concerned with justice and fairness, but rather ruthless individuals willing to do anything to ensure the security of their state and their own personal power. Click here for more information.

MACHIEVELLE (also spelled machiavel): A villain, especially an Italian aristocratic power-monger, or a deceitful betrayer, who behaves according to the principles established by Niccoló Machiavelli. (See Machiavellian, above.) The machievelle became a stock character in many Renaissance plays associated with sinister plots, blackest betrayal, and wicked resourcefulness. Examples from Shakespeare include Richard of Gloucester in Richard III and Edmund and Cornwall in King Lear.

MACARONIC TEXT: Any medieval or modern manuscript written in a jumble of several languages--say a mixture of Latin and French or Latin and German--is said to be macaronic. The mixture might involve bilingual vocabulary and grammatical switches within a single sentence, or in alternating lines or paragraphs, or in purely random intervals. Examples from the Restoration period would be the steamier scenes of Samuel Pepys' diary entries for 1666-1668, in which Pepys frequently mingles Spanish and Latin words in the text to hide the exact details of his sexual indiscretions. Cf. code-switching.

MACROCOSM (Cf. microcosm): The natural universe as a whole, including the biological realms of flora and fauna, weather, and celestial objects such as the sun, moon, and stars. See discussion under chain of being.

MACROLOGIA (Grk. "big language" or "long language"): Also called macrology, in rhetoric, a negative term for a type of periphrasis involving unnecessary repetition of lengthy clauses. See discussion under periphrasis.

MACRON: A diacritical mark in the form of a horizontal line indicating the vowel beneath it is long.

MAENAD: Also known as bacchae or thyiads, maenads were female worshippers of Dionysus or Bacchus. In the mystery cult of Dionysus, worshippers would get drunk on wine and then undergo an all-night process of stylized frenzied dancing in order to achieve the divine state of ekstasos. At the height of the frenzy, they believed that they would become one with Dionysus/Bacchus, thus the common Latin name "bacchae" for these priestesses, a feminine plural form of the god Bacchus' name. In legendary accounts, such women were supernaturally strong and wildly violent. They would run through the forest naked after the ceremonies and would catch small animals (or in some myths men and children!), rip them apart bare-handed, and then eat the flesh raw. In literature, Euripides' tragedy The Bacchae is a dramatic retelling of the arrival of the Dionysiac rites in Greece.

MAGIC REALISM: In 1925, Franz Roh first applied the term "magic realism" (magischer Realismus in German) to a group of neue Saqchlichkeit painters in Munich (Cuddon 531). These painters blended realistic, smoothly painted, sharply defined figures and objects--but in a surrealistic setting or backdrop, giving them an outlandish, odd, or even dream-like qualilty. In the 1940s and 1950s, the term migrated to the prose fiction of various writers including Jorge Luis Borges in Argentina, Gabriel Garcia Márquez in Colombia, and Alejo Carpentier in Cuba. The influence also spread later to Günter Grass in Germany and John Fowles in England (Abrams 135). These postmodern writers mingle and juxtapose realistic events with fantastic ones, or they experiment with shifts in time and setting, "labyrinthine narratives and plots" and "arcane erudition" (135), and often they combine myths and fairy stories with gritty Hemingway-esque detail. This mixture create truly dreamlike and bizarre effects in their prose.

An example of magic realism (and one of my own personal favorites in postmodern narrative) would be Gabriel Garcia Márquez's short story, "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings," a narrative in which a fisherman discovers a filthy, lice-ridden old man trapped face-down in the muddy shore of the beach, weighed down by enormous buzzard wings attached to his back. A neighbor identifies the old man as an angel who had come down to claim the fisherman's sick and feverish child but who had been knocked out the sky by storm winds during the previous night. Not having the heart to club the sickly angel to death, the protagonist decides instead to keep the supernatural being captive in a chicken coop. The very premise of the story reveals much of the flavor of magic realism. Cf. postmodernism.

MAIAR: Semidivine spirits in Tolkien's Silmarillion. See discussion under Valar.

MAJUSCULE: A large letter or a capital letter as opposed to minuscule.

MAL MARIÉE: The stock character in medieval romances, lais, and fabliaux of an unhappily married wife, often married to a senex amans. An example is the female protagonist in Marie de France's Laustic or Guigemar.

MALAPROPISM: Misusing words to create a comic effect or characterize the speaker as being too confused, ignorant, or flustered to use correct diction. Typically, the malapropism involves the confusion of two polysyllabic words that sound somewhat similar but have different meanings. For instance, in Richard Sheridan's The Rivals, we hear, "She's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile." Dogberry the Watchman in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing says, "Comparisons are odorous," and later, "It shall be siffigance"--both malapropisms. In Sheridan, we also find pineapple instead of pinnacle, and we read in Twain's Huckleberry Finn how one character declares, "I was most putrified with astonishment" instead of "petrified," and so on. The best malapropisms sound sufficiently similar to the correct word to let the audience recognize the intended meaning and laugh at the incongruous result. Cf. acyron.

MALAYO-POLYNESIAN: Another term for Austronesian.

MANET / MANENT: Common Latin stage directions found in the margins of Shakespearean plays. Manet is the singular for "He [or she] remains." Manent is the plural form for multiple individuals. Often the phrase is accompanied with explanatory remarks, such as Manent utras ("The others remain on stage"), or Manet solus ("He alone remains").

MANNER OF ARTICULATION: In linguistics, how the speech organs of lips, tongue, and vocal cords must be arranged in order to produce a particular sound such as a nasal, a stop, a fricative, or so on.

MANUSCRIPT: A text written by hand, as opposed to one printed with a printing press. (Manus is Latin for "hand"; scriptum is a Latin participle for "written.") Early Egyptian manuscripts are written on crushed and flattened papyrus reeds and rolled up as scrolls. Later, parchment and vellum (animal skins) became the primary means of transmitting texts. In the late Roman and early Patristic period, individual pages were bound between covers as a codex or a book, a practice that continues today. Paper as we know it became common in the Middle East in the twelfth century, but it took another three hundred years for the art of paper-making to spread through Europe. By Shakespeare's day, printed paper had largely replaced manuscripts written on vellum, but the mechanics of printing often tried to imitate the familiar features of manuscripts. In medieval scholarship, the abbreviation "MS" stands for manuscript, and British scholars often use the plural form "MSS" for manuscripts. "TS" and "TSS"are the equivalent terms for typeset documents. Some important medieval literary manuscripts include the Ellesmere, the Hengwyrt, and the Nowell Codex. You can click here to see the first page of Beowulf from the Nowell Codex. See also parchment, vellum, quire, hair side, and flesh side.

MAQAMA: Picaresque Arabic stories in rhymed prose. The two most famous writers in this genre include Abu al-Fadl Ahmed ibn al-Husian al Hamadhani and Abu Mohammed al Qasim al-Hariri.

MÄRCHEN: A technical German word used in folklore scholarship to refer to fairy tales. See discussion under fairy tale.

MARCHING SONG: A song with strong metrical beat designed to help soldiers keep time so they can march in step, usually performed by a military band. Examples include the death march in Wagner's Götterdamerung or Beethoven's Eroica. Tolkien has the Ents in The Lord of the Rings sing a tune matching the rhythmical constraints of a marching song as they head into war with Isengard in The Lord of the Rings (484-85). Contrast with walking song.

MARGINALIA: Drawings, notation, illumination, and doodles appearing in the margins of a medieval text, rather than the central text itself.

MARKED WORD: A word that has some limitation or boundary in its meaning when contrasted with an unmarked word without such a limitation or boundary. Algeo points to the example of stallion (marked for male gender) and mare (marked for female gender) in contrast with the word horse, which is unmarked for gender (323).

MARRIAGE GROUP: A term coined by George L. Kittredge in 1912 to describe a specific set of stories in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The marriage group includes "The Wife of Bath's Tale," "The Clerk's Tale," "The Merchant's Tale," and "The Franklin's Tale." All four narratives deal with the question of the proper relationship between men and women in marriage. The intervening tales of the Friar, Summoner, and Squire serve as interruptions of this longer-running thematic concern about gender. Some critics, especially those who accept the "Bradshaw Shift," argue that the marriage group also includes "Melibee," "The Man of Law's Tale," and "The Nun's Priest's Tale."

MARY SUE: A character beloved by the author but often despised by readers and editors--an unrealistic character with overly idealized behavior who lacks any perceivable flaws--especially one serving as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author. This term is an eponym from a character in Paula Smith's 1973 parody, "A Trekkie's Tale," and in subsequent decades became popular among editors in science-fiction publishing houses to refer to poorly written, annoying, and unlikely characters written by amateur authors.

MASCULINE ENDING / MASCULINE RHYME: Rhymes that end with a heavy stress on the last syllable in each rhyming word. See under discussion of meter.

MASHAL (plural meshalim): In the Hebrew tradition, a mashal is a broad, general term including almost any type of figurative language from short riddles to long, extended allegories. It denotes "mysterious speech." Some of the Psalms, for instance, are designated as meshalim. The New Testament Greek often translates the term as parabole or "parable." This translation, however, causes some problem. In Greek, parabole are always allegorical and open to point-by-point interpretation. Parabole were often used as a simple method of teaching by example or analogy. The meshalim in Hebrew, however, was often intentionally confusing or deliberately obfuscating in nature--much more like the Greek enigma (riddle). We can see this confusion in the New Testament, where Mark interprets the purpose of the parables as Hebrew meshalim. In Mark, Jesus tells his disciples: "The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, 'they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise, they might turn and be forgiven'" (Mark 4:11-12). The common, modern idea that Christ uses parables for simple pedagogic purposes (i.e., "so that even a child could understand the secrets of heaven") is a creation of the medieval period, much later.

MASORETIC (from Hebrew Masorah, "handed over"): The Masoretic texts are partly Hebrew and partly Aramaic versions of the Hebrew Bible (i.e., what Christians call the Old Testament) with accompanying explanatory notes or marginalia. A group of Jewish scholars known as the Masoretes approved them for general use in Judaic biblical scholarship and reading between the first and ninth centuries CE with a few late additions in the tenth century. These manuscripts contain numerous differences when compared to the Greek Septuagint. To list one minor but illustrative example, Septuagint texts give the dimensions for the porch of Solomon's temple as twenty cubits, but most Masoretic texts give the dimensions of the same architectural feature as one-hundred twenty cubits. Other differences range from the trivial to the striking. For linguists and biblical scholars, Masoretic texts are especially important because the Masoretes who wrote them introduced the Hebrew convention of using dots and symbols under, above, and inside consonant letters to represent vowel sounds. Previous Hebrew texts only marked consonant sounds, which left the meaning of many words ambiguous and rendered it difficult to verify comparative studies showing how similar or different Hebrew was from closely related languages such as Akkhadian, Amorite, Arabic, Ugaritic, Proto-Canaanite (which developed into both Phoenician and Classical Hebrew), Eblaite and Elamite.

MASQUE: Not to be confused with a masquerade, a masque is a type of elaborate court entertainment popular in the times of Queen Elizabeth I, King James I, and Charles I--i.e., the early 17th Century after Queen Elizabeth's death. The masque as a performance grew out of medieval plays, but it was more spectacle than drama proper. The content was suitable for amateur actors rather than professional performers. The masques tended to use long speeches and little action. They combined poetic drama, singing, dancing, music, and splendid costumes and settings. The imagery was influential on later poets and poems, such as Andrew Marvell, who makes use of masque-imagery in "Upon Appleton House."

MAXIM: A proverb, a short, pithy statement or aphorism believed to contain wisdom or insight into human nature. In much of the dialogue in Viking sagas, for instance, the characters will quote short maxims to each other to make a point.

MCGUFFIN: A humorous or joking term to describe an object or artifact that drives the plot as part of a quest motif. For instance, the horcrux in the Harry Potter series, the Holy Grail in Arthurian legends, the Golden Fleece in Jason and the Argonauts, and so forth. See discussion under quest motif.

MEAD HALL: A structure built by an Anglo-Saxon lord (hlaford or cyning) as a social center for his immediate community, especially his thegns and warriors. Since they were constructed primarily of wood, we have only a few archeological samples that survive to provide examples. We know from descriptions in Anglo-Saxon texts that they were filled with mead-benches, which were elaborately carved and decorated with gold. Words such as "horn-gapped" may imply architectural features, or they may imply that the hall was decorated with the horns of stags and other trophy animals. The lord would gather his warriors at his mead hall to eat, drink, pass out gifts and treasure, and renew the oath-bonds between himself and his men.

MEDIEVAL (from Latin medium aevum, "the Middle Age" or "the in-between age"): The period of time roughly a thousand years long between the fall of the Roman Empire and the emergence of the Renaissance. Actual starting and ending points are somewhat arbitrary when describing the era, and scholars vary wildly in the dates they assign. For instance, M. H. Abrams' Norton Anthology of English Literature, 7th edition, assigns to the medieval period the years 450-1485, but in his Glossary of Literary Terms, the same scholar points to the years 410-1500 as the appropriate years. J. A. Cuddon's Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory prefers the dates c. 800-c. 1450, and Harry Shaw's Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms prefers c. 476-c. 1350, but notes that it "may extend to about 1500" (p. 170). While there are no universally accepted demarcations, it is common in older European histories to divide the medieval period into an early period of "the Dark Ages" and a later period of "the High Middle Ages." On the other hand, linguists divide the medieval period in England into the Anglo-Saxon period (about 450-1066) and the Middle English period (about 1066-1450). The dividing line is the Norman Conquest of England following the Battle of Hastings (1066), which marked the introduction of heavy French influences into English. Some scholars prefer to mark the years 1100-1350 as the "Anglo-Norman" period, since most courtly literature in England was written in Norman-French rather than English. Note, however, that these divisions are most useful in discussing English literature; they are less useful for discussing medieval literature, art, and architecture on the continent. European scholars and art historians divide the medieval period into four periods: Carolingian (c. 750-900), Ottonian (c. 900-1056), Romanesque (c. 1057-1150), and Gothic (1150-1475).

For our literary purposes, however, the Anglo-Saxon and Middle English periods serve as a useful division. The early medieval centuries (often misleadingly called "the Dark Ages") are marked by the disintegration of classical Greco-Roman culture and the volkerwanderung of Germanic tribes into western Europe, followed by gradual conversions to Christianity. Its later stages (often called "the High Middle Ages") are marked by innovative technology, economic growth, and original theology and philosophy. The term medievalism in western Europe is linked with feudalism in government, guildhouses in economics, monasticism and Catholicism in religion, and castles and knights in chivalrous military custom. Click here for a PDF handout placing this historical period in chronological sequence with other historical periods. Click below for a chronological list of historical events in various centuries:

MEDIEVAL ESTATES SATIRE: A medieval genre common among French poets in which the speaker lists various occupations among the three estates of feudalism (nobles, peasants, and clergy) and depicts them in a manner that shows how short they fall from the ideal of that occupation. In the late medieval period, the genre expanded to discuss the failings of bourgeois individuals as well. The genre was not unknown in England. John Gower's Vox Clamantis and Confessio Amantis have passages similar to those in continental estates satire. Jill Mann suggests in her famous book, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire, that the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales is itself an example of this genre. See also satire, anti-fraternal satire, and three estates.

MEDIEVAL ROMANCE: See discussion under romance, medieval.

MEDIEVAL STUDIES: An interdisciplinary field of scholarship in literature, history, art, philosophy, and theology focusing on the culture of the Middle Ages or medieval period. Scholars who specialize in this area are medievalists. Among the Inklings, J.R.R. Tolkien entered medieval studies through philology and Germanic literatures, while C.S. Lewis became a medievalist via classical and Renaissance philosophy and literature--eventually leaving Oxford to go to Cambridge and become the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance literature. [Dr. Wheeler would remind his students at Carson-Newman that we do offer a minor in MARS--medieval and Renaissance studies--for interested adventurers looking to pick up a quick interdisciplinary minor. --KW]

MEDITATION: A thoughtful or contemplative essay, sermon, discussion, or treatise--especially one that encourages introspection and self-analysis. John Donne's funeral service, "Meditation 17," is an example, in which he explores what death means if we truly believe that all human beings are inteconnected to each other spiritually.

MEIOSIS: Understatement, the opposite of exaggeration: "I was somewhat worried when the psychopath ran toward me with a chainsaw." (i.e., I was terrified). Litotes (especially popular in Old English poetry) is a type of meiosis in which the writer uses a statement in the negative to create the effect: "You know, Einstein is not a bad mathematician." (i.e., Einstein is a good mathematician.) "That pustulant wart is somewhat unbeautiful" (i.e., That pustulant wart is ugly). Litotes is recognizable in English by negatives like not, no, non- and un-.)

MELODRAMA: A dramatic form characterized by excessive sentiment, exaggerated emotion, sensational and thrilling action, and an artificially happy ending. Melodramas originally referred to romantic plays featuring music, singing, and dancing, but by the eighteenth century they connoted simplified and coincidental plots, bathos, and happy endings. These melodramatic traits are present in Gothic novels, western stories, popular films, and television crime shows, to name but a few more recent examples.

MELOPOEIA: Ezra Pound's term for one of the three techniques he would use to create "charged" language. Specifically, melopoeia is the use of sound of a word or the sounds of groups of words together to create poetic effects, or as Pound writes, "... You charge it [a word] by sound or you use groups of words to do this" (37). Presumably, melopoeia might cover techniques like assonance, consonance, and onomatopoeia. See also phanopoeia and logopoeia.

MELUSINE MYTH: A medieval legend about a French princess who secretly transformed into a serpent or dragon in her private moments until her husband learns the truth about her real identity. C.S. Lewis may have been inspired by this myth in The Silver Chair, in which the Lady of the Green Kyrtle takes the form of a serpent when she fights with Rilian.

MEME: An idea or pattern of thought that "replicates" like a virus by being passed along from one thinker to another. A meme might be a song or advertising jingle that gets stuck in one's head, a particularly amusing joke or entertaining story one feels compelled to pass on, a memorable phrase that gets quoted repeatedly in public speeches or in published books, a political ideology, an invention, a teacher's lesson plan, or even a religious belief.

MEMOIR (usually appearing in plural form as memoirs, from Latin, memoria "memory" via French mémoire): An autobiographical sketch--especially one that focuses less on the author's personal life or psychological development and more on the notable people and events the author has encountered or witnessed. Examples include memoirs published by Winston Churchill and Dwight D. Eisenhower. The memoir contrasts with a diary or journal, i.e., the memoir is not an informal daily record of events in a person's life, it is not necessarily written for personal pleasure, and the author of such memoir has in mind the ultimate goal of publication. Contrast with biography and memoir-novel.

MEMOIR-NOVEL: A novel purporting to be a factual or autobiographical account but which is completely or partially imaginary. The authorial voice or speaker is typically a made-up character who never actually lived. This creation is not so much a hoax as a literary convention or an artistic device. An early example would be Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders. Later eighteenth-century examples include Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield and Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling. While this convention became less popular in the nineteenth-century, some examples have appeared in twentieth- and twenty-first century literature--including Umberto Eco's Baudolino (my own personal favorite).

MEMORIAL RECONSTRUCTION: Renaissance actors reconstructing the text of a play from their own (sometimes faulty) memory. Acting companies often lost or gained members rapidly. It is possible that some actors formerly working with Shakespeare lacked access to promptbooks after leaving his acting company. These players may have attempted to reconstruct the plays by memory. Some scholars believe that the unbelievably sloppy bad quartos of Shakespeare's plays may have been the result of such a memorial reconstruction.

MEMORY PLAY: The term coined by Tennessee Williams to describe non-realistic dramas, such as The Glass Menagerie, in which the audience experiences the past as remembered by a narrator, complete with music from the period remembered, and images representing the characters' thoughts, fears, emotions, and recollections projected on a scrim in the background. See drama, scrim.

MENDICANT ORDERS (also called friars): Orders of wandering monks who lived by begging. In the Middle Ages, the clergy was divided into secular clergy and regular clergy. The secular (i.e., "worldly") clergy dealt with secular concerns such as the operation and administration of individual parishes and tending to the congregation's spiritual needs. It was composed of the priests, bishops, archbishops, and cardinals. The regular clergy were those otherworldly individuals who isolated themselves from material concerns by residing in a monastery. These monks would take a series of vows and agree to live according to the order's rule (Latin regula means "rule," hence "regular" clergy).

While all the regular orders took a vow of poverty individually, the mendicant orders also took a vow of communal or corporate poverty, vowing to subsist entirely on begging from day-to-day, hence the name "mendicant" or "begging." It was hoped that this sort of vow would prevent abuses that occurred in monasteries, in which individual monks had no personal wealth, but the monastery as a whole was a powerful corporate entity possessing thousands of acres of land and its collective income, allowing the "impoverished" monks to often live a luxurious existence in spite of their individual vows of poverty. Some monasteries became such powerful landowning institutions that, at one point in England, it has been estimated that one-quarter to one-third of all available land was in the possession or control of various abbots. This situtation granted the monastic clergy political and financial power comparable to that of the secular branch of church; it was a far cry from the original intention of these monks to remove themselves from petty worldly matters in order to focus on spiritual contemplation.

In reaction to this situation, a series of reformers such as Saint Dominic and Saint Francis of Assissi espoused the idea of a new type of religious order--the mendicants. Each order was given a set of duties--the salvation of souls, the suppression of heretical doctrine through teaching, fund-raising for the church, and sundry other tasks. There remain from the Middle Ages four great mendicant orders recognized by the Second Council of Lyons in 1274 CE:

In more recent centuries, the council of Trent granted all the mendicant orders except the Friars Minor and the Capuchins the right to have corporate property like other monasteries.

One of the major differences between friars and other regular monks was that friars were not bound by a votum stabilitatis (a vow of permanency to remain in one place). Instead, they were at liberty to wander from place to place teaching if given the permission of the "general" of their order. Indeed, such mobility was necessary, since the friars' primary task was, as it states in their mission statement, "to save souls." Thus, while other monks sought to follow an eremitical tradition that would remove them from worldly concerns and isolate themselves from the general public beyond the monastery's walls, the mendicant orders deliberately reinserted themselves into the world so they could preach, teach, and beg.

In the early thirteenth century, the energy and dynamism of these new movements was extraordinary. Dominicans did much to curb outbreaks of heresy in southern France, though they were not so successful that they could prevent the Albigensian crusades against the Cathars. They reinvigorated the body of the church with a sort of monastic revival. By a century later, however, new problems and abuses began to arise.

Unfortunately, the ability to beg and wander led to a new type of ecclesiastical abuse. Part of the spiritual "glue" holding a monastery together is the supervision of an abbot, who would oversee the monks and make sure they are not straying into sin. Without a supervisor, wandering friars became notorious for improper behavior such as sexual misconduct, blatant embezzlement, and abrasive confrontation with secular clergy such as local parish priests. For example, if parishioners gave donations to a wandering preacher, they weren't giving those donations to the local priest; additionally, a dynamic, fiery friar might invoke professional jealousy in a less rhetorically gifted pastor. Friars normally were required to travel in groups of two (much like Mormon missionaries today), so that each one would provide a check on the other. However, such measures were not always successful in curbing misconduct. This abuse became a source of much popular resentment and frustration. In literature, this manifested itself in anti-fraternal satire. Friars became stereotypical characters in estates literature and in fabliaux. Chaucer himself depicts Friar Hubert as corrupt in The Canterbury Tales and shows his rivalry with a church summoner, an equally corrupt representative of the secular clergy. They insult each other's professions in their tales.

constructionMENTOR: (1) In common use, this eponym comes from the character mentor in Homer's Odyssey. Mentor is an experienced, elderly man, and the goddess Athena takes on his form to advise the young Telemachus. Penelope's suitors plan to kill him and seize Ithaca for themselves, so Telemachus needs all the help he can get! Hence, the motif of a mentor is an older, experienced character who provides advice to younger inexperienced ones, which is a standard component of fairy tales and myths in Campbell's model of the mythic hero.

(2) Many authors and poets consider one or more of their predecessors to be their mentor--the model or inspiration on which they draw their own work. Dante, for instance, saw Virgil as his master and teacher, and models his Inferno on descriptions of the Underworld in Virgil's Aeneid. Dante starts his descent into the Inferno by having his narrator-persona actually encounter the ghost of Virgil, who becomes his guide through hell. C.S. Lewis in his youth encountered the fantasy novel Phantastes by George MacDonald, and he considered it one of the ten most influential works he ever read. Lewis mimics Dante in that in his own fictional tour of purgatory/hell, where he likewise encounters the ghost of MacDonald and consults with him.

MERCIAN: The dialect of Old English spoken in the region of Mercia.

MERGING: In linguistics, another term for leveling.

MESOZEUGMA: See discussion under zeugma.

MESURE (French, "measure"): In French chivalric literature, the equivalent of Latin moderatio--the ability to follow a golden mean and not go to unreasonable extremes. This trait contrasts with the demesure (excessive actions or unconrolled passions) of figures like the knight Roland in the Chanson de Roland. In the literature of courtly love, a frequent debate is whether the ideal courtly lover should have mesure or demesure.

METADRAMA: Drama in which the subject of the play is dramatic art itself, especially when such material breaks up the illusion of watching reality. When Macbeth cries out, "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player / who struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / and then is heard no more," his references to "shadows" and "players" (Renaissance slang for actors) and his discussion of the stage serve to remind the audience forcefully that they are watching a dramatic artifice, not a real historical event. The references break down verisimilitude to call attention to the fact that viewers are watching a staged performance. Likewise, the opening to Taming of the Shrew forcefully emphasizes that the events we see are a fiction, as does Hamlet's plan to use The Mouse-Trap as an ethical litmus test for Claudius: "The play's the thing / wherin I'll catch the conscience of the king."

METAFICTION: Fiction in which the subject of the story is the act or art of storytelling of itself, especially when such material breaks up the illusion of "reality" in a work. An example is John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman, in which the author interrupts his own narative to insert himself as a character in the work. Claiming not to like the ending to the tale, the author sets his watch back ten minutes, and the storyline backs up ten minutes so an alternative ending can unfold. The act reminds us that the passionate love affair we are so involved in as readers is a fictional creation of an author at that point when we are most likely to have forgotten that artificiality because of our involvement. Other examples include Chaucer's narrator in the Canterbury Tales, in which the pilgrim tells the reader to "turn the leaf [page] and choose another tale" if the audience doesn't like naughty stories like the Miller's tale. This command breaks the illusion that Geoffrey is a real person on pilgrimage, calling attention to the fictional qualities of The Canterbury Tales as a physical artifact--a book held in the readers' hands. Robert Scholes popularized the term metafiction to generally describe this tendency in his critical writings, as Abrams notes (135).

METALITERATURE: Literary art focused on the subject of literary art itself. Often this term is further divided into metapoetry, metafiction, and metadrama.

METAPHOR: A comparison or analogy stated in such a way as to imply that one object is another one, figuratively speaking. When we speak of "the ladder of success," we imply that being successful is much like climbing a ladder to a higher and better position. Another example comes from an old television add from the 1980s urging teenagers not to try drugs. The camera would focus on a close-up of a pair of eggs and a voice would state "This is your brain." In the next sequence, the eggs would be cracked and thrown onto a hot skillet, where the eggs would bubble, burn, and seeth. The voice would state, "This is your brain on drugs." The point of the comparison is fairly clear. Another example is how Martin Luther wrote, "A mighty fortress is our God, / A bulwark never failing." (Mighty fortress and bulwark are the two metaphors for God in these lines.)

A metaphor is an example of a rhetorical trope, and such metaphors have a long history of critical discussion. Aristotle, for instance, claimed "the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances" (qtd in Deutsche 84). Often, a metaphor suggests something symbolic in its imagery. For instance, Wordsworth uses a metaphor when he states of England, "she is a fen of stagnant waters," which implies something about the state of political affairs in England as well as the island's biomes. Sometimes, the metaphor can be emotionally powerful, such as John Donne's use of metaphor in "Twickenham Garden," where he writes, "And take my tears, which are love's wine" (line 20).

If we break down a metaphorical statement into its component parts, the real-world subject (first item) in a metaphoric statement is known as the tenor. The second item (often an imaginary one or at least not present in a literal sense) to which the tenor refers is called the vehicle. For example, consider the metaphorical statement, "Susan is a viper in her cruel treacheries." Here, Susan is the tenor in the metaphor, and viper is the vehicle in the same metaphor. The tenor, Susan, is literally present or literally exists. The vehicle, the hypothetical or imagined viper, is not necessarily physically present.

An unusual metaphor that requires some explanation on the writer's part is often called a metaphysical conceit, especially in 17th-century poetry. If the metaphorical connection is merely implied rather than directly stated, such as talking about "the ladder of success," the term is a "subdued metaphor." The combination of two different metaphors into a single, awkward image is called a "mixed metaphor" or abusio. See also tenor, vehicle, subdued metaphor, and telescoped metaphor. Contrast with simile.


METAPHYSICAL POETRY: See discussion under metaphysical poets, below.

METAPHYSICAL POETS: In his 1693 work, Discourse of Satire, John Dryden used the term metaphysical to describe the style of certain poets earlier in the 17th century. Later, Samuel Johnson popularized the term in 1779. The term metaphysical implies the poetry is abstract and highly complex. The chief metaphysical poets include John Donne, Richard Crashaw, Andrew Marvell, George Herbert, and Henry Vaughan. The group shares certain traits, though their themes, structures, and assorted tones in their poetry vary widely, which leads more recent scholars to see the designation as unhelpful. (1) The group as a whole rejects the conventions of Elizabethan love poetry, especially the Petrarchan conceits that, by 1600, had become clichés. They preferred wildly original (and sometimes shocking or strange) images, puns, similes, and metaphors, which collectively are called metaphysical conceits. (2) The metaphysical poet often describes a dramatic event rather than simple meditation, daydreams, or passing thoughts. (3) The metaphysical poets employed inconsistant or striking verse--often imitating the rhythmic patterns of everyday speech, rather than attempting to create perfect meter in the manner later favored by neoclassical poets. Basically, the metaphysical poets would not let metrical form interfere with the development of a line of thought. (4) The poem often expresses an argument--often using wild flights of logic and unusual comparisons. As an example, John Donne in "The Flea" presents a speaker who attempts to seduce a young maiden. The basis of his argument is the comparison between sex and a flea-bite. In "Holy Sonnet 14," Donne fashions a prayer in which he compares God to a rapist and himself to a besieged city.

METAPLASMUS: A type of neologism in which misspelling a word creates a rhetorical effect. To emphasize dialect, one might spell dog as "dawg." To emphasize that something is unimportant, we might add -let or -ling at the end of the word, referring to a deity as a "godlet" or a prince as a "princeling." To emphasize the feminine nature of something normally considered masculine, try adding the suffix -ette to the end of the word, creating a smurfette or a corvette. To modernize something old, the writer might turn the Greek god Hermes into the Hermenator. Likewise, Austin Powers renders all things shagedelic. For more information, see the subdivisions of metaplasmus under schemes.

METAPOETRY: Poetry about poetry, especially self-conscious poems that pun on objects or items associated with writing or creating poetry. Among the Romantic and Enlightenment poets, we find puns on leaves (referring on one hand to the leaves of plants, and on another to the leaves or pages of a book of poetry), feet (referring on one level to the body part, and on another to the metrical feet of a poem), and so on. Other types of metapoetry involve self-conscious commentary on the poem's own genre or on the process of creating the poem. A fine example of this type of metapoetry is Billy Collins' "Sonnet":

All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
And after this next one just a dozen
To launch a little ship on love's storm-tossed seas,
then only ten more left like rows of beans.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
and insist the iambic bongos must be played
and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
one for every station of the cross.
But hang on here while we make the turn
into the final six where all will be resolved,
where longing and heartache will find an end,
where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take off those crazy medieval tights,
blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.

Here, we can clearly see the self-reflective tendencies, in which the poet discusses how many more lines he needs to finish a traditional sonnet (lines 1-4), he directly comments on the traditional subject-matter of the sonnet, the rejected love of the speaker (alluded to in line 3), he adds an amusing allusion to the normal requirements of rhyme, meter and iambic pentameter, which the poet rejects (lines 5-8), and he adds a direct reference to the turn or volta, in the exact moment when the volta is required in an Italian sonnet. Finally the poet alludes to Laura (the woman to whom Petrarch dedicated his sonnets) and to Petrarch, the inventor of the sonnnet-structure that Collins mimics and alters simultaneously. The subject-matter of this sonnet is the conventional sonnet itself; thus, it is metapoetry. See metaliterature.

METATHESIS: The transposition of two sounds in speech or spelling. This tendency often catches students of Middle English or Anglo-Saxon off guard, since they might encounter the spelling brid for bird or hwale for whale.

METER: A recognizable though varying pattern of stressed syllables alternating with syllables of less stress. Compositions written in meter are said to be in verse. There are many possible patterns of verse. Each unit of stress and unstressed syllables is called a "foot." The following examples are culled from M. H. Abrams' Glossary of Literary Terms, seventh edition, which has more information. You can also click here to download a PDF handout giving examples of particular types of feet, or click here for a longer PDF handout discussing meter and scansion.

Iambic (the noun is "iamb" or "iambus"): a lightly stressed syllable followed by a heavily stressed syllable.

Example: "The cúrfew tólls the knéll of párting dáy." (Thomas Gray, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.")

Anapestic (the noun is "anapest") two light syllables followed by a stressed syllable: "The Assyrian came dówn like a wólf on the fóld." (Lord Byron, "The Destruction of Sennacherib.")

Trochaic (the noun is "trochee") a stressed followed by a light syllable: "Thére they áre, my fífty men and wómen."

Dactylic (the noun is "dactyl"): a stressed syllable followed by two light syllables: "Éve, with her básket, was / Déep in the bélls and grass."

Iambs and anapests, since the strong stress is at the end, are called "rising meter"; trochees and dactyls, with the strong stress at the beginning with lower stress at the end, are called "falling meter." Additionally, if a line ends in a standard iamb, with a final stressed syllable, it is said to have a masculine ending. If a line ends in a lightly stressed syllable, it is said to be feminine. To hear the difference, read the following examples aloud and listen to the final stress:

Masculine Ending:
"'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house,

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse."

Feminine Ending:

"'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the housing,

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mousing."

We name a metric line according to the number of "feet" in it. If a line has four feet, it is tetrameter. If a line has five feet, it is pentameter. Six feet, hexameter, and so on. English verse tends to be pentameter, French verse tetrameter, and Greek verse, hexameter. When scanning a line, we might, for instance, describe the line as "iambic pentameter" (having five feet, with each foot tending to be a light syllable followed by heavy syllable), or "trochaic tetrameter" (having four feet, with each foot tending to be a long syllable followed by a short syllable). Here is a complete list of the various verse structures:

  • Monometer: one foot
  • Dimeter: two feet
  • Trimeter: three feet
  • Tetrameter: four feet
  • Pentameter: five feet
  • Hexameter: six feet
  • Heptameter: seven feet
  • Octameter: eight feet
  • Nonameter: nine feet

See also quantitative meter.

METONYM: Any specific use or specific example of metonymy, or any symbol in which a specific physical object is used as a vague suggestive symbol for a more general idea. See metonymy below.

METONYMY: Using a vaguely suggestive, physical object to embody a more general idea. The term metonym also applies to the object itself used to suggest that more general idea. Some examples of metonymy are using the metonym crown in reference to royalty or the entire royal family, or stating "the pen is mightier than the sword" to suggest that the power of education and writing is more potent for changing the world than military force. One of my former students wrote in an argumentative essay, "If we cannot strike offenders in the heart, let us strike them in the wallet," implying by her metonym that if we cannot make criminals regret their actions out of their guilty consciences, we can make them regret their actions through financial punishment. We use metonymy in everyday speech when we refer to the entire movie-making industry as the L. A. suburb "Hollywood" or the advertising industry as the street "Madison Avenue" (and when we refer to businessmen working there as "suits.") Journalists use metonymy to refer to the collective decisions of the United States government as "Washington" or when they use the term "the White House" as a shorthand reference for the executive bureaucracy in American government. Popular writer Thomas Friedman coined a recent metonym, "the Arab Street," as a shorthand reference for the entire population of Muslim individuals in Saudi Arabia, Yeman, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the surrounding areas. When students talk about studying "Shakespeare," they mean metonymically all his collected works of drama and poetry, rather than the historical writer's life alone, and so on.

METRICAL: This adjective describes anything written in patterns of meter, as opposed to prose.

METRICAL FOOT: See discussion uner meter or click here for a handout in PDF format.

METRICAL SUBSTITUTION: A way of varying poetic meter by taking a single foot of the normal meter and replacing it with a foot of different meter. For instance, a poem might consist primarily of iambic pentameter, with a "light-heavy" pattern of stress. The poet might add variety by occasionally inserting a foot consisting of two stresses (spondeic substitution) or a foot with a reversed pattern of "heavy-light" stress (trochaic substitution). See meter. When a poet uses metrical substitution to replace the first entire foot with a single stressed beat, the result is an acephalous line.

MEZOZEUGMA: An alternative spelling of mesozeugma. See discussion under zeugma.

MIASMA (Greek, "stench"): Literally referring to a stench or bad smell, the Greek term also metaphorically indicates a sort of ceremonial taint or spiritual stain that can result from various sorts of impurity. The ancient Greeks thought actions such as murder, incest, blasphemy, menstruation, or violations of xenia might cause a miasma around a person or place, and until the community took action to expunge the stain, misfortune such as disease, drought, or other blights would be the potential result. Normally, people thought to be stained by miasma were forbidden to pass the sacred marker (temenos) separating the holy ground of a temple or a public forum from non-sacred space. The term is particularly applicable in the play Oedipus Rex, in which the entire community of Thebes has fallen under a curse because of a miasma in their midst. It is also relevant in Agamemnon, where the prophetess Cassandra seems to have the ability to sense miasma as well as see the invisible Furies that have come to settle on the house.

MICROCOSM (cf. macrocosm): The human body. Renaissance thinkers believed that the human body was a "little universe" that reflected changes in the macrocosm, or greater universe.

MID VOWEL: In linguistics, any vowel sound made with the jaw and tongue positioned between the normal articulations for high and low vowels. An example of a mid-vowel would be the vowel sound in pate.

MIDDLE COMEDY: Greek comedies written in the early 300s BCE, in which the exaggerated costumes and the chorus of the Old Comedy were eliminated. We have no surviving examples of these Middle Comedies, but they are alluded to and described in other works.

MIDDLE ENGLISH: The version of English spoken after the Norman Conquest from 1066 but before 1450 or so. Before the Norman Conquest, the common version of English was Old English or Anglo-Saxon, a Germanic language that is difficult to read without specialized training. An influx of Norman French and Latin vocabulary after the Normans conquered England resulted in rapid changes in spoken English. Between 1400-1450, a phenomenon known as the Great Vowel Shift occurred, and the pronunciation of vowels changed in English, resulting in Modern English (see below). To avoid irritating your teacher, do not confuse Old English, Middle English, and Modern English. This diagram will help you contrast them.

MIDDLE PASSAGE: The sea-voyage from Africa to the West Indies and/or the Americas commonly used by slave-traders. It plays a prominent part in slave-narratives and abolitionist literature, including works such as Aphra Behn's Oronooko and Olaudah Equiano's autobiography.

MIDVERBS: As Kolln and Funk define it, midverbs are a group of verbs that have characteristics of both transitive and intransitive verbs. Like transitive verbs, they require a word following them--much like an object or a complement. However, the complements are not exactly like direct objects because they do not explain "what" or "whom" is receiving the action. Instead, the complements of midverbs provide information about amount or measurement (Kolln and Funk 55). Examples include the verbs weigh and cost (55). For instance, "The corpse weighed two-hundred pounds." Here, weighed is a midverb. The word pounds is sort of like a direct object to the verb weighs, but since it shows an equivalence with corpse, it is sort of like a predicate noun or a subject complement also. Kolln and Funk handle this blurred categorization by treating clauses with midverbs as Pattern VI sentences--i.e., they treat the complement as a mere adverbial.

MILES GLORIOSUS (Lat. "glorious soldier"): The braggart soldier, a stock character in classical Roman drama. The braggart soldier is cowardly but boasts of his past deeds, and he becomes involved in sexual catastrophes, bullying, and thievery. The miles gloriosus is frequently of low morals. Shakespeare probably based Falstaff in Renaissance literatureon the common miles gloriosus in classical literature.

MILTONIC IMAGERY: Imagery made famous by Milton's poetry--especially Paradise Lost. Examples include the dark angels or twisted demons laboring at Pandemonium's construction deep below the earth in fiery shadow, especially when such imagery is taken in contrast with the pastoral tranquility of Eden or the pearly mansions of heaven afloat in glowing clouds. Likewise, the motif of the rejected, fallen, rebellious seraphim struggling against the Almighty's white lightning remains a haunting image in Milton's poetry. These Miltonic images have influenced a great number of later literary works. In H. G. Wells' The Time Machine, Wells used Miltonic imagery in the Morlocks and Eloi, where (it initially appears) the troglodytic Morlocks labor in darkness under the earth and the child-like Eloi play in the blissful garden above. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein steals Miltonic imagery by casting the monster as both an innocent Adam figure and simultaneously a rebellious Satan figure who rejects his maker as flawed and morally inferior. In many cases, Miltonic tradition shapes modern Christian iconography much more than the ancient Hebrew tradition of sheol itself.

MIMESIS: Mimesis is usually translated as "imitation" or "representation," though the concept is much more complex than that and doesn't translate easily into English. It is an imitation or representation of something else rather than an attempt to literally duplicate the original. For instance, Aristotle in The Poetics defined tragedy as "the imitation [mimesis] of an action." In his sense, both poetry and drama are attempts to take an instance of human action and represent or re-present its essence while translating it into a new "medium" of material. For example, a play about World War II is an attempt to take the essence of an actual, complex historical event involving millions of people and thousands of square miles over several years and recreate that event in a simplified representation involving a few dozen people in a few thousand square feet over a few hours. The play would be a mimesis of that historic event using stage props, lighting, and individual actors to convey the sense of what World War II was to the audience. In the same way, the process of mimesis might involve creating a film about World War II (translating the event into images projected onto a flat screen or monitor using chemical images on a strip of photosynthetic film), or writing a poem about World War II would constitute an attempt at distilling that meaning into syllables, stress, verse, and diction. Picasso might attempt to embody warfare as a montage of destruction--his painting Guernica is the result. The degree to which each form of art accurately embodies the essence of its subject determines (for many classical theorists of art) the degree of its success.

Additionally, mimesis may involve ecphrasis--the act of translating art from one type of media into another. A classical musician or composer might be entranced by an earlier bit of folkloric art, the legend of William Tell. He attempts to imitate or represent the stirring emotions of that story by creating a stirring song that has the same effect; thus, the famous "The William Tell Overture" results. A story has been translated into a musical score. It is also possible to attempt mimesis of one medium into the same medium. For instance, American musician Aaron Copland was inspired by the simplicity of Quaker music, so he attempted to re-create that music mimetically in "Appalachian Spring," much like he earlier attempted mimetically to capture the American spirit in "Fanfare for the Common Man."

In literature, ecphrasis is likewise used to describe the way literature describes or mimics other media (other bits of art, architecture, music and so on). For instance, "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is largely Keats' poetic attempt to capture the eternal and changeless nature of visual art depicted on an excavated piece of pottery. Chaucer's "Knight's Tale" involves an elaborate architectural recreation of three pagan temples, and the artwork on the walls of those temples, as well as the verbal construction of an entire coliseum to enclose a knightly combat. These are both ecphrases seeking to turn one type of non-verbal art into verbal art through mimetic principles.

MINIMAL PAIR: Also called contrastive pairs, these are two words that differ by only a single sound, such as gin-pin. Linguists commonly use minimal pairs for illustrating subtle sound differences.

MINNE: The German term for fin amour, i.e., courtly love.

MINNESÄNGER: Any German minstril who writes poems and songs about courtly love in the medieval period. He is usually considered the German equivalent of the French troubadour.

MINUSCULE: A small or lowercase letter, in contrast with majuscule, a large or capital letter. The invention of minuscule allowed for faster, more compact writing in scriptoria.

MIRACLE OF THE VIRGIN: A vita or a miracle play that dramatizes some aspect of humanity activity, and ends with the miraculous intervention of the Blessed Virgin. See discussion under miracle play (below), and vita.

MIRACLE PLAY: Not to be confused with medieval morality plays, a miracle play is a medieval drama depicting either biblical stories, the miracle(s) performed by a saint, or the martyrdom of a saint in Christian traditions. (Some critics prefer the third definition and reject the first two.) Miracle plays were usually presented in a cycle, such as dramas dealing with the Virgin Mary, the fall of man, and so on. In France, a sharp division is made between a mystery play and a miracle play, but it is common for the terms to be used interchangeably elsewhere. Few examples of miracle plays survive in English (the oldest being "Play of Saint Catherine" from the area of Dunstable), but in France, there remains a famous cycle of Les Miracles de Notre Dame, forty-two plays belonging to the second half of the 1300s written in octosyllabic couplets. An example of a modern miracle play is the Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck's Sister Beatrice. The general emphasis in a miracle play is to astonish and inspire the viewer with a sense of wonder at the numinous. An entire subgenre of miracles of the virgin also exist. Contrast with morality play and mystery play.

MIRROR PASSAGE: A section of a story that might not contribute directly to the plot (i.e., it contains characters divorced from the main narrative, and the events it deals with do not further the action) but which does reflect the basic concerns of the work in terms of theme, action, or symbolism or which seems to echo another scene, image, or situation. For instance, the Miller's story in The Canterbury Tales creates a love triangle to mock and mirror the love triangle in the Knight's earlier narrative, or the three daily hunts that mirror the tactics of the bedroom seduction in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or the way Aeneas's attempt to hug Creüsa's ghost thrice mirrors his attempt to embrace the ghost of his father Anchises in The Aeneid, or the inversion of words and tears that distinguishes Aeneas and Dido's two farewells--the first at Carthage and the second in the Underworld. See also mirror scene.

MIRROR SCENE: A scene in a play or novel that does not contribute directly to the plot (i.e., it contains characters divorced from the main narrative, and the events it deals with do not further the action,) but which does mirror the basic concerns of the play or narrative in terms of theme, action, or symbolism. For instance, the scene with the gardeners in Richard II relates symbolically to the fact that Richard, as king, is not tending his own little Eden, the isle of Britain. The scene with Christopher Sly in the opening of The Taming of the Shrew does not relate directly to Petruchio's wooing of Kate, but it does establish the theme of how appearance might not match reality. See also mirror passage.

MLA: The acronym for the Modern Language Association. English students primarily know the MLA as the publisher of the MLA guidelines for research papers, the standard format used in American college English classes. Founded in 1883, this organization is a professional guild of sorts for professors and instructors of a variety of subjects: foreign languages, linguistics, composition, technical writing, philology, rhetoric, and literature. Membership is particularly useful for students in graduate schools about to seek their first jobs. (Membership allows them access to the JIL, the Job Information Listings.) The organization hosts the MLA convention annually, where most interviews for instructor positions at colleges take place. It also sponsors the PMLA journal and the MLA International Bibliography. You can learn more at the MLA website.

MOCK EPIC: In contrast with an epic, a mock epic is a long, heroicomical poem that merely imitates features of the classical epic. The poet often takes an elevated style of language, but incongruously applies that language to mundane or ridiculous objects and situations. The mock epic focuses frequently on the exploits of an antihero whose activities illustrate the stupidity of the class or group he represents. Various other attributes common to the classical epic, such as the invocation of the muse or the intervention of the gods, or the long catalogs of characters, appear in the mock epic as well, only to be spoofed. For instance, Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock gives in hyperbolic language a lengthy account of how a 17th century lord cuts a lady's hair in order to steal a lock of it as a keepsake, leading to all sorts of social backlash when the woman is unhappy with her new hairdo. Lord Byron's Don Juan gives a lengthy list of the sexual conquests and catastrophes associated with a precocious young lord, Don Juan. Both are fine examples of the mock epic. In some ways, the mock epic is the opposite of a travesty. See also spoof, satire.

MOCK SERMON: A medieval genre commonly known as "une sermon joyeux" or "une sermon joli," its conventions are that a non-clerical figure will present a humorous lecture on a non-religious topic (sexuality and food being two common choices) using all the tropes and conventions of a normal homily--such as the introduction and explication of a Biblical passage, allusions to various intellectual figures, a series of exempla to prove the speaker's point, and a concluding invocation of prayer. Some critics have read Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Prologue" as a mock sermon concerning a woman's place in marriage, for instance. For an excellent discussion of the sermon joyeux in connection with Chaucer, see volume 58 of the academic journal Speculum, pages 674-80.

MODERN ENGLISH: The English language as spoken between about 1450 and the modern day. The language you are speaking now and the language Shakespeare spoke are both considered examples of Modern English. Modern English is distinct from Middle English (spoken c. 1100 to 1400) in that vowels are pronounced differently after the Great Vowel Shift (1400-1450). Both Middle English and Modern English are distinct from Old English in that Old English and Middle English had numerous letters (such as the letters ash, thorn, and eth) and some sounds (such as yogh) that were used much more commonly. Old English also used elaborate declensions that have mostly fallen out of use in Modern English. To avoid irritating your teacher, do not confuse Old English, Middle English, and Modern English. This diagram will help you contrast them. A good rule of thumb is that, (a) if you can read it easily, it's probably modern English, (b) if you can read it with some difficulty, but there are many words "misspelled" and an occasional strange letter, it's probably Middle English, and (c) if you can't read it all, and it looks like a foreign language with letters you don't recognize, you are probably looking at Old English. See Middle English and Old English.

MODERNISM: A vague, amorphous term referring to the art, poetry, literature, architecture, and philosophy of Europe and America in the early twentieth-century. Scholars do not agree exactly when Modernism began--most suggest after World War I, but some suggest it started as early as the late nineteenth century in France. Likewise, some assert Modernism ended with World War II or the bombing of Nagasaki, to be replaced with Postmodernism, or that modernism lasted until the 1960s, when post-structural linguistics dethroned it. Others suggest that the division between modernism and postmodernism is false, and that postmodernism is merely the continuing process of Modernism. Under the general umbrella of Modernism, we find several art movements such as surrealism, formalism, and various avante-garde French movements. Professor Frank Kermode further divides modernism into paleo-modernism (1914-1920) and neo-modernism (1920-1942). However, these divisions are hardly agreed upon by historians and critics. In general, modernism is an early twentieth-century artistic marked by the following characteristics: (1) the desire to break away from established traditions, (2) a quest to find fresh ways to view man's position or function in the universe, (3) experiments in form and style, particularly with fragmentation--as opposed to the "organic" theories of literary unity appearing in the Romantic and Victorian periods, and (4) a lingering concern with metaliterature. Cf. postmodernism. To see where modernism fits into a chronological listing of the major literary periods, click here for a pdf handout.


MOIRA: Fate or the three fates in Greek mythology. Contrast with wyrd.

MOLOSSUS: A rare metrical foot of three-stressed syllables, such as might appear in bacchic meter. It is also called a bacchic foot or a bachius .It is nonstandard in most English verse.

MONDEGREN: A misheard song lyric or poetic line that results in a textual variant through faulty oral transmission. The result is often amusing in nature. For example, the 1967 rock singer Jimi Hendrix had a set of lyrics in "Purple Haze" in which the speaker states in pantheistic bliss, "'Scuse me while I kiss the sky." However, the background music garbled his pronunciation, and many confused listeners misinterpreted the line as "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy."

Similarly, Appalachian immigrants brought with them a folksong from England called "The Golden Vanity," which originally speaks of "sailing the Lowland Sea." After a few generations, the landlocked Appalachian descendants did not know what the Lowland Sea referred to any longer, and the singers created a mondegren, "sailing the lonesome sea." Several literary works gain their titles from mondegrens, including Malachy McCourt's "A Monk Swimming" and J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye."

The original term mondegren to describe this sort of mistake first appeared in an essay by Sylvia Wright, which Harper's Magazine published in November of 1954. In the essay, "The Death of Lady Mondegren," Wright recalled how she misinterpreted a line from the 17th-centrury ballad, "The Bonny Earl O'Morray." Here, the original line reads, "They hae slain the Earl O'Moray, / and laid him on the Green." She, however, heard, "They hae slain the Earl O'Moray, / and Lady Mondegren."

MONODY: Any elegy or dirge represented as the utterance of a single speaker. Compare with dramatic monologue.

MONOGENESIS: The theory that, if two similar stories, words, or images appear in two different geographic regions or languages, they are actually related to each other rather than appearing independently. Either one was the original source, and the others adopted it later, or all the surviving examples come from an older (possibly lost) source. Contrast with polygenesis.

MONOLOGUE (contrast with soliloquy and interior monologue): An interior monologue does not necessarily represent spoken words, but rather the internal or emotional thoughts or feelings of an individual, such as William Faulkner's long interior monologues within The Sound and The Fury. Monologue can also be used to refer to a character speaking aloud to himself, or narrating an account to an audience with no other character on stage. Cf. dramatic monologue.

MONOMYTH: Joseph Cambell, a psychoanaltyic and Jungian theorist, coined the phrase monomyth in his 1949 work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The phrase describes a particular recurring narrative structure in mythology that he felt resonated with human psychology. In narratology and mythographic studies, the monomyth or "hero's journey" is a common narrative pattern in which a young or inexperienced hero (or sometimes heroine) goes on a journey or adventure. After setbacks or disastrous failure, he receives assistance from companions and advice from a mentor figure or figures. He resumes the journey, and in a climactic point of the story, symbolically dies, learns some hidden gnosis, and symbolically returns to life. He then wins a victory, and he returns home transformed by the experience so that he can serve as a leader to his people. The chart would look like the following:

STAGE I Call to adventure--some new threat or challenge appears in the protagonist's community.
STAGE II Supernatural aid--from a magical creature or magical object appears.
STAGE III Confrontation--The hero confronts the threshhold of danger, often a guardian or villain, that thrwarts him.
STAGE IV Education--Aid comes from a helper and/or mentor figures to show him how to bypass challenges and temptations.
STAGE V Revelation--The hero experiences revelation--often in the form of an abyss or a symbolic death and rebirth.
STAGE VI Resurrection--The hero is transformed, resurrected, or somehow makes atonment, often receiving a concrete or abstract gift from a divine source like a god or goddess-figure
STAGE VII Return--The hero returns home. Once there, he re-establishes order or peace, often becoming a new ruler.

See also archetype.

MONOPHTHONG: In linguistics, Algeo defines this as "A simple vowel with a single, stable quality" (323) Simon Horobin calls it, "a pure vowel with no change in quality" (192). Contrast with diphthong. See also monophthongization.

MONOPHTHONGIZATION: The tendency of diphthongs to turn into simple vowels over time, or the actual process by which diphthongs turn into such vowels. Contrast with diphthongization.

MONORHYME: A poem or section of a poem in which all the lines have the same end rhyme. The rhyming pattern would thus look like this: AAAA AAAA, AAA AAA, or AA AA AA AA, etc. It is a common rhyme scheme in Latin, Italian, Arabic, Welsh, and Slav poetry, especially in the Slav poetry of the oral-formulaic tradition. Because of the fact that English nouns are not declined and our adjectives do not have gender consistently indicated by particular endings, it is much harder to make effective poetic use of monorhyme in the English poetry. However, Shakespeare makes frequent use of it is a bit of doggerel in his plays. For instance, in The Merchant of Venice, we find the following section in monorhyme:

ARAGON: The fire seven times tried this;
Seven times tried that judgment is
That did never choose amiss
Some there be that shadows kiss

There be fools alive iwis,
Silvered o'er, and so was this.
Take what wife you will to bed
I will ever be your head.
So be gone; you are sped. (2.9.62-71)

MONOSYLLABIC: Having only one syllable.

MOOD (from Anglo-Saxon, mod "heart" or "spirit"): (1) In literature, a feeling, emotional state, or disposition of mind--especially the predominating atmosphere or tone of a literary work. Most pieces of literature have a prevailing mood, but shifts in this prevailing mood may function as a counterpoint, provide comic relief, or echo the changing events in the plot. The term mood is often used synonymously with atmosphere and ambiance. Students and critics who wish to discuss mood in their essays should be able to point to specific diction, description, setting, and characterization to illustrate what sets the mood. (2) In grammar, an aspect of verbs. Click here for more information on grammatical mood.

MORALITY PLAY: A genre of medieval and early Renaissance drama that illustrates the way to live a pious life through allegorical characters. The characters tend to be personified abstractions of vices and virtues. For instance, characters named Mercy and Conscience might work together to stop Shame and Lust from stealing Mr. Poorman's most valuable possession, a box of gold labeled Salvation. Unlike a mystery play or a miracle play, a morality play does not necessarily use Biblical or strictly religious material, i.e., the morality play usually does not contain specific characters found in the Bible, such as saints or the disciples or Old Testament figures. Unlike the miracle play, which depicts astonishing and moving miraculous events believed to have occurred literally to specific historical figures in specific settings, the morality play takes place internally and psychologically in every human being. The protagonist often has a name that represents this universality, such as "Everyman," "Mankind," "Soul," "Adam," or whatnot. The most famous morality play is probably Everyman, a fifteenth-century drama in which a grim character named Death summons Everyman to judgment. On his way to meet Death, Everyman discovers that all his old buddies are abandoning him except one. His friend Good Deeds is the only one that will accompany him to meet Death, while Beauty, Fellowship, Kindred, Knowledge, and Strength fall by the wayside on his journey. Other famous examples include The Castle of Perseverance and Mankind. Contrast with mystery play and miracle play.

MORPHEME: Linguistically, the smallest collection of sounds or letters in a spoken or written word that has semiotic importance or significance--a unit of meaning that cannot be divided into tinier units of meaning. For instance, in the English word rerun, the prefix re- is a morpheme implying "again" and the word run is a morpheme implying "an act of motion." If we try to cut the prefix re- into smaller collections of sounds (/r/ and /I/ phonetically), these sounds no longer have meaning attached to them, and they are no longer morphemes. Likewise, the morpheme run cannot be further subdivided into meaningful morphemes. Note that morphemes can be either free or bound. Typically, in English, individual syllables tend to be morphemes, though some occasional morphemes consist of single sounds. Contrast with grapheme and phoneme.

MORPHOLOGY: The part of a language concerned with the structure of morphemes and how these morphemes combine. Linguists use this term in contrast with syntax.

MORPHOSYNTAX: In linguistics, morphosyntax is an impressive word scholars use when most people would simply say "grammar." It is the study of how parts of a sentence relate to each other.

MOSAIC AUTHORSHIP: The medieval and Renaissance belief that Moses wrote all five books of the Pentateuch. Click here for more discussion.

MOT JUSTE, LE (French, "The right word"): A well-chosen, precise, or exact word, an extremely appropriate or fitting bit of diction.

MOTIF: A conspicuous recurring element, such as a type of incident, a device, a reference, or verbal formula, which appears frequently in works of literature. For instance, the "loathly lady" who turns out to be a beautiful princess is a common motif in folklore, and the man fatally bewitched by a fairy lady is a common folkloric motif appearing in Keats' "La Belle Dame sans Merci." In medieval Latin lyrics, the "Ubi sunt?" [where are . . .?] motif is common, in which a speaker mourns the lost past by repeatedly asking, what happened to the good-old days? ("Where are the snows of yesteryear?" asks Francois Villon.) The motif of the "beheading game" is common in Celtic myth, and so on. Frequently, critics use the word motif interchangeably with theme and leit-motif. See also folkloric motif.

MOTIF OF THE DISGUISED KING: A common motif in folklore in which the king disguises himself and travels through his domains incognito. Examples include Prince Hal/Henry V in Shakespeare's plays, in which the king dons a cloak to obscure his features and then walks among his troops to converse with them and get a sense of their morale before battle. In Greek epics, Odysseus returns to his kingdom of Ithaca in disguise and skulks among the suitors to gather intelligence toward the end of The Odyssey. In The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn is the rightful king of the west, but he remains disguised as the homeless and impoverished Strider. In manySee also the motif of the hidden king, below.

MOTIF OF THE HIDDEN KING: A common motif in folklore in which the rightful king of a nation is absent or hidden away, but will one day be revealed and then triumphantly reclaim rule over his kingdom, ushering in a golden age. Examples in Arthurian literature include King Arthur, who is first hidden when Merlin spirits him away from Uther Pendragon while Arthur is an infant but later revealed as the true ruler when he draws the sword from the stone. Additionally, when King Arthur is wounded in the fight with Mordred, he sails away to Avalon in the West, but prophecy asserts he will return from Faerie to rule Britain again in the hour of the island's greatest need. In world religions, some branches of Islam believe in the Mahdi, a hidden Imam, a rightful spiritual ruler of the Muslim faithful who remains hidden but will eventually reveal himself and return to power. Some Tolkien scholars identify Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings as another example of the motif. As Helen Armstrong notes:

Aragorn has many of the marks of a mythical "hidden king" and true hero. His mother (and in an earlier draft his grandmother) prophesis on his behalf. At moments of drama a white flame appears on his brow. He loves a princess of the Elves. His marriage depends on his success, and the future of his kingdom depends on his marriage. He is supported and advised by a powerful otherworldly woman, Galadriel, and he carries tokens of his heritage and destiny (Andúril, the Elfstone). The last sapling of the White Tree of Gondor flowers to herald his marriage, and he is crowned in Gondor by Gandalf, the hierophant in the story. . . . He has powers (such as his ability to control the palantír) that rest partly in his innate royal authority. (see "Aragorn" entry in Drout 23)

Contrast with the motif of the disguised king.

MULTICULTURAL NOVEL: As Robert Harris defines the term in his glossary, a multicultural novel is

A novel written by a member of or about a cultural minority group, giving insight into non-Western or non-dominant cultural experiences and values, either in the United States or abroad. Examples:
• Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
• Amy Tan, The Kitchen God's Wife
• Forrest Carter, The Education of Little Tree
• Margaret Craven, I Heard the Owl Call My Name
• James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain
• Chaim Potok, The Chosen
• Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Penitent
• Alice Walker, The Color Purple.

MULTICULTURALISM: In literature, multiculturalism is the belief that literary studies should include writings, poetry, folklore, and plays from a number of different cultures rather than focus on Western European civilization alone. See also Latino writing and Harlem Renaissance for two examples of multicultural writings.

MULTIPLICATIVE: Most languages have various systems of numbering, typically at least two systems and sometimes many more. For instance, most languages distinguish between cardinal numbers (like one, two, or three in English or unus, duo, and tres in Latin) which indicate a tally and can function as adjectives or substantive adjectives, and ordinal numbers (such as first, second, and third in English or primus, secundus, and tertius in Latin), which indicate a sequence or ordering.

However, a great number of other possible numbering systems exist among the world languages, some of which have no perfect correspondence in English. These include the following:

Multiplicative numbers indicate the number of times something multiplies or recurs, such as the English words single, double, triple, or quadruple, or the Latin words simplex, duplex, triplex, and quater, etc.

Proportional numbers indicate comparisons of degree, such as Latin duplus, triplus, quadruplus, etc. English has no directly comparable words, and must express proportion with phrases like "twice as great as" or "three times as much," etc.

Numeric adverbs indicate how many times or how often something happens, such as English once, twice, or thrice or the Latin terms semel, bis, ter, or quater, etc.

Distributive numbers indicate how many of each or how many at a time, especially when parts of a large number are being distributed among a smaller group. Examples include Latin singuli, bini, terni, and quaterni. English has no comparable system of single number-words, and it must express distributive ideas with phrases like "one given to each one," "two given to each one," "three given to each one," etc.

Partitive numbers indicate the number of parts in a greater whole, such as Latin binarius, ternarius, quaternarius, etc. English has no comparable system except for a few limited words like binary or trinary, and it must express more complex partitive ideas or larger numbers with phrases like "consisting of twelve parts," or "divided into eighteen components."

Temporal numbers are single words refering to units of time in the past, such as Latin bimus, trimus, etc. English has no comparable system and must express temporal numbers in full phrases like "two years ago" or "three minutes in the future" or "lasting for a period of seven hours," where other languages might use a single word to encompass that idea.

MUSES, THE NINE: The nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne who had the power to inspire artists, poets, singers, and writers. They are listed below along with their spheres of influence:

  • Calliope (epic poetry)
  • Clio (history)
  • Euterpe (lyric poetry)
  • Melpomene (tragedy)
  • Terpsichore (choral dance)
  • Erato (love poetry)
  • Polyhymnia (hymns and sacred poems)
  • Urania (astronomy)
  • Thalia (comedy)

MUSE, INVOCATION OF: See invocation of the muse.

MUSIC OF THE SPHERES: In medieval and Renaissance Europe, many scholars believed in a beautiful song created by the movement of the heavenly bodies (sun, moon, and planets). The music of spheres supposedly was infinitely beautiful, but humans were unable to hear it, either (a) because of their sinful separation from God, or (b) because they were so used to its presence, their minds automatically filtered it out as background noise. This medieval idea influences C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy literature, in which Aslan creates Narnia through an act of singing and the elder gods of Middle-Earth build the universe through a symphony that incorporates Melkor's awful, rebellious song into the larger harmonies of the grand creator.

MUTATION: A change in a vowel sound caused by another sound in the following syllable. In Old English and in Celtic languages like Irish Gaelic and Welsh, the type of mutation called i-mutation was especially common. Another common type is the eclipsis mutation, a mutation in which a basic consonant sound is "eclipsed" or replaced by a stronger sound in a preceding word. For a chart of the most common Irish mutations as examples, click here.

MYSTERY CULT: Unlike the official "public cults" dedicated to the Olympian gods in ancient Greece and Rome, a number of religious practices involved chthonic deities (like Demeter) and imported foreign gods (Ishtar, Osiris, Mithras, etc.). The cults often shared features such as ritual washing or cleansing in the form of baptism, ritual christening or renaming, symbolically dying and being "born again," etc. Possibly some may have offered the hope of an afterlife through metempsychosis (unlike standard Greek and Roman belief which emphasized a gloomy stay in the underworld). Others--in the case of Dionysian worshippers--ritually "slew" the god and ate him or drank his blood symbolically in the form of wine. Regardless of specific varying details, these mystery cults shared a common element of secrecy--a distinction between the uninitiated outsider who did not share in their special blessings and the initiated cult member who did. The cult rituals were held to be so sacred that it was blasphemous to reveal them to outsiders, even to speak of them, describe them, or write them down in any way. The rites were often held in inaccessible areas far from the local city--on mountain-tops or sea-shores or in catacombs. Some, like the mystery cult of Demeter, were open to any prospective members regardless of race, gender, or nationality as long as they spoke sufficient Greek to participate in the rituals. Others were open to certain professions, such as the cult of Mithras which only allowed soldiers to join after an initial baptism in bull's blood. Others were restricted by family (such as local versions of the Lykian wolf cult) or partly restricted by gender (such as the maenads of Dionysus).

MYSTERY CYCLE: A collection of mystery plays in a single manuscript meant to be performed sequentially. See discusion under mystery play, below.

MYSTERY NOVEL: A novel focused on suspense and solving a mystery--especially a murder, theft, kidnapping, or some other crime. The protagonist faces inexplicable events, threats, assaults, and unknown forces or antagonists. Conventionally, the hero is a keenly observant individual (such as Sherlock Holmes) and the police are depicted as incompetent or incapable of solving the crime by themselves. Many of the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, and Agatha Christie are mystery novels. Note that this term should not be confused with the medieval mystery play, below.

MYSTERY PLAY: A religious play performed outdoors in the medieval period that enacts an event from the Bible, such as the story of Adam and Eve, Noah's flood, the crucifixion, and so on. Although the origins are uncertain, Mary Marshall and other early scholars like E. K. Chambers (author of The Medieval Stage, 1903) suggested that the plays developed out of the Latin liturgy of the church, in particular out of the Quem Quaeritis trope of Easter Day festivals. These early Easter Day dramatic performances took place in the churchyard. Later, these plays gradually became secular and used vernacular languages rather than Latin, and they gradually moved out of the churchyard and ecclesiastical control, becoming outdoor performances controlled by the craftsmen in each city, according to this theory. Other scholars such as V. A. Kolve refute this idea, however.

In any case, we do know that these religious plays were staged and performed by secular audiences. Typically, the various guilds in each city (such as the Carpenters' Guild, the Butchers' Guild, and so on) would sponsor and perform one play during the Corpus Christi festival, competing with each other for the most elaborate performance. Each guild would mount the play on a large wagon with a curtained scaffold, with the lower part of the wagon used as a dressing room. Between forty and fifty of these wagons (one for each guild) would move from spot to spot in the city, so that spectators could watch several performances in a single day. The plays often involved elaborate representations of heaven and hell, mechanical devices to create "special effects," and lavish costuming. The dramatizations became increasingly elaborate, and they show signs of developing psychological realism. The use of mystery in the name may originate in either the idea of spiritual mysteries, which were the focus of each play, or it may result from the Latin word misterium (a guild). The mystery plays were an important precursor to the miracle plays and morality plays (see above) in medieval drama, and they set the stage for the flowering of Renaissance drama that was to come with Shakespeare. Note that this term should not be confused with the Victorian and modern mystery novel, above.

MYSTIC WRITERS: See discussion under mystics, below.

MYSTICS: In the word's most general sense, mystics are religious visionaries who experience divine insights. In medieval scholarship, the term "mystics" or "mystic writers" is often used as a collective term for a group of late fourteenth-century and early fifteenth-century eremites in England who wrote mystical works in Middle English and Latin. These include the anchoress Julian of Norwich, who wrote The Book of Showings; the illiterate mystic Margery Kempe, who dictated her autobiography The Book of Margery Kempe to two scribes; Richard Rolle, the author of "Love is Love that Lasts for Aye"; and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing. On the continent, other famous mystics include Saint Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, and Saint Francis of Assissi. The mystic writers are marked by the use of vivid (and sometimes confusing) imagery, intense emotional pathos (in the case of Margery Kempe), paradox (in the case of Richard Rolle), and an intense desire to verbalize what is largely a nonverbal experience (in the case of nearly every mystic). Mystics--regardless of religious background--are often marked by an experience in which they perceive the universe as a unity or in which they feel a sense of being one with the divine. We see signs of this tendency in Julian of Norwich's vision of Christ's blood, which transforms into raindrops falling from the side of a roof and then in turn transforms into the scales on a herring, as if God's physical form were embodied in the entire universe.

In a more general sense, the author of the book of Revelation in the Bible (commonly attributed to John of Patmos), and the poetry of William Blake are said to be visionary or mystical in nature, though scholars usually do not place them in the same category as the medieval mystics. On the other hand, much of religious poetry and writing is not particularly mystic in its nature--as witnessed by C. S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters or the poetry of Milton and Gerard Manley Hopkins, all three of which are profoundly religious, but which do not necessarily represent a struggle to verbalize an intense religious vision in the same manner as a mystic writer.

MYSTOI: The Greek term for mystery cults, see above.

MYTH: While common English usage often equates "myth" with "falsehood," scholars use the term slightly differently. A myth is a traditional tale of deep cultural significance to a people in terms of etiology, eschatology, ritual practice, or models of appropriate and inappropriate behavior. The myth often (but not always) deals with gods, supernatural beings, or ancestral heroes. The culture creating or retelling the myth may or may not believe that the myth refers to literal or factual events, but it values the mythic narrative regardless of its historical authenticity for its (conscious or unconscious) insights into the human condition or the model it provides for cultural behavior. See also folklore, legend, mythography, mythos, and mythology.

MYTHOGRAPHY: The commentary, writings, and interpretations added to myths. Medieval writers, such as the four anonymous scribes collectively called the "Vatican Mythographers," would take Greek and Roman myths and write elaborate Christianized allegories to explain the meaning of the text. Another example of medieval mythography is the Ovid moralisée, a retelling of Ovid's Metamorphoses in which French scribes interpret the legends as Christological commentary on the New Testament.

MYTHOLOGY: A system of stories about the gods, often explicitly religious in nature, that possibly were once believed to be true by a specific cultural group, but may no longer be believed as literally true by their descendents. Like religions everywhere, mythology often provided etiological and eschatological narratives (see above) to help explain why the world works the way it does, to provide a rationale for customs and observances, to establish set rituals for sacred ceremonies, and to predict what happens to individuals after death. If the protagonist is a normal human rather than a supernatural being, the traditional story is usually called a legend rather than a myth. If the story concerns supernatural beings who are not deities, but rather spirits, ghosts, fairies, and other creatures, it is usually called a folktale or fairy tale rather than a myth (see folklore, below). Samples of myths appear in the writings of Homer, Virgil, and Ovid.

construction symbol MYTHOPOEIA (Greek "myth-making" or "myth-poetry"): (1) J. R. R. Tolkien's neologism for the deliberate creation of artificial myth, especially the incorporation of traditional mythic archetypes into current fiction, whether that fiction be something akin to Virgil's propaganda in The Aeneid, the Romantic poetry of William Blake, or the fantasy literature of C.S. Lewis or Tolkien himself. Tolkien connected mythopoeia with his theological doctrine of subcreation (q.v.) (2) Tolkien's poem of the same title, which he wrote in response to an argument he and the other Inklings had regarding C.S. Lewis' atheism shortly after September 19, 1931. C.S. Lewis initially felt he could not believe in a literal resurrection of Christ because the narrative pattern in the Gospels echoed much older myths about sacrificial dying gods, as detailed at length in Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough. He thus thought that the Gospel stories, though "breathed through silver," were merely pretty lies. Tolkien's counter-argument was that, even though much older versions of the story existed before the time of Christ, that did not matter. Tolkien argued that, what God did in the incarnation and crucifixion was to take the older stories and make them literally true. Our older myths expressed man's deepest longest for redemption and resurrection, and that God chose to fulfill those ancient desires by giving Christ to humanity--and thus the older myth could be made flesh and walk among us. The 148-line poem, written in heroic couplets,

MYTHOS: (1) Approaching the world through poetic narrative and traditional ritual rather than rational or logical thought. (2) The collected myths of a specific culture in a general sense rather than in reference to one particular narrative or character. For instance, we might refer specifically to the myth of Hercules fighting the Hydra, the myth of Kali drinking demons' blood, or the myth of the giant Ullikummis, but we would more generally say these tales belong to the Greek mythos, the Hindu mythos, or the Hittite mythos, respectively. Cf. mythology.

[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]

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.
  • Anderson, Douglas. "Note on the Text" in J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. 50th anniversary edition. Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
  • 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, 1985.
  • Carrick, Jake. E-mail interview. 28 April 2016.
  • 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.
  • 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 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.
  • Feeney, Denis. "Introduction." Ovid: Metamorphóses Trans. David Raeburn. London: Penguin Books, 2004.
  • 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.
  • Preminger, Alex, and T.V.F. Brogan, et al. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. New York: MJF Books for Princeton University Press, 1993.
  • Perelman, Ch. and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca. The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation. Notre Dame, U of Notre Dame P, 2000.
  • Pound, Ezra. ABC of Reading. New York: Laughlin, 1960..
  • 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.
  • Smith, Richard Upsher, Jr. A Glossary of Terms in Grammar, Rhetoric, and Prosody for Readers of Greek and Latin. Mundelein, Illinois: Bolchazy-Caducci Publishers, Inc., 2011.
  • 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 University in the Fall Term of 2006.]
  • Swain, Dwight V. Creating Characters. The Elements of Fiction Writing. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 1990.
  • Velásquez, Lito. E-mail communication. 26 October 2015.
  • 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, Paul. E-mail Interview. 21 June 2012.



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