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Literary Terms and Definitions: U

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]

UBI SUNT MOTIF (Latin, "Where are....?"): A literary motif dealing with the transience of life. The name comes from a longer Latin phrase, "Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerent?" [Where are those who were before us?], a phrase that begins several medieval poems in Latin. The phrase evokes the transience of life, youth, beauty, and human endeavor. It is a particularly common motif in the ballades. A particularly memorable example comes from medieval French, where Francois Villon repeatedly asks in "The Ballade of Dead Ladies," "Ou sont les nieges d'antan?" ["Where are the snows of yesteryear?"]. Many Anglo-Saxon poems such as "The Ruin" and "The Wanderer" also deal with this theme. Although the motif is similar to the Roman carpe diem motif in its emphasis on transitory existence, the medieval ubi sunt motif usually does not call on the reader to embrace this world's pleasures before the end comes, but instead grimly or sorrowfully urges the reader to prepare spiritually for the afterlife.

ULTIMATE SOURCE: In linguistics, the earliest known or most ancient etymon for a particular word, as opposed to a direct source, the most recent source for a word.

UMLAUT: (1) Jacob Grimm's term for the process of assimilating a vowel to another sound in the following syllable. This process is also called mutation. This process is responsible for many unusual plurals in Germanic languages like English--such as man-men, foot-feet, and so on. (2) The diacritical marking also called a dieresis. Click here for more information on this diacritical marking.

UNDECEPTION: One of C.S. Lewis's favorite themes, the idea that the human condition is "the state of being deceived by others, by sin, or by oneself" (Duriez 216), and those illusions then fall away to deeper truths later in the narrative. Lewis uses this term to describe the phenomenon among the protagonists in Jane Austen's novels in his essay, "A Note on Jane Austen," cf. his Selected Literary Essays. Examples in Lewis's Narnia stories include Prince Rilian in The Silver Chair and (more centrally), the White Witch's deceptions with Edmund, and finally the realization of the children in The Last Battle, when they discover that their Narnia and England were but pale shadows or Platonic Forms of a deeper heaven.

UNDERSTATEMENT: See litotes and meiosis under tropes.

UNDERWORLD: The land of the dead--often depicted as beneath the surface of the earth in a variety of religious literatures. See Descent Into the Underworld.

UNINFLECTED GENITIVE: A genitive that has no case ending to signal its function. A number of such uninflected genitives appeared in Early Modern English--especially for nouns that originally were feminine in Anglo-Saxon grammar or nouns ending in -s or preceding another word beginning with s-. Thus, we might find "for conscience sake" and "for God sake" in Shakespearean plays, instead of inflected versions like "for conscience's sake" or "for God's sake."

UNINFLECTED PLURAL: A plural word identical to its singular form. For instance, "I saw one deer yesterday, but last week I saw five deer." Here, the word deer is identical whether it is singular or plural. Other examples include sheep, swine, folk, and (in Middle English) horse and kind, which did not develop the plural versions of horses and kinds until the 1600s through linguistic hypercorrection.

UNITIES, THREE (also known as the "three dramatic unities"): In the 1500s and 1600s, critics of drama expanded Aristotle's ideas in the Poetics to create the rule of the "three unities." A good play, according to this doctrine, must have three traits. The first is unity of action (realistic events following a single plotline and a limited number of characters encompassed by a sense of verisimilitude). The second is unity of time, meaning that the events should be limited to the two or three hours it takes to view the play, or at most to a single day of twelve or twenty-four hours compressed into those two or three hours. Skipping ahead in time over the course of several days or years was considered undesirable, because the audience was thought to be incapable of suspending disbelief regarding the passage of time. The third is unity of space, meaning the play must take place in a single setting or location. It is notable that Shakespeare often broke the three unities in his plays, which may explain why these rules later were never as dominant in England as they were in French and Italian Neoclassical drama. French playwrights like Moliére conformed to the model much more strictly in Love is the Doctor and Tartuffe.

UNIT SET: A series of lowered or raised platforms on stage, often connected by various stairs and exits, which form the various locations for all of a play's scenes. A unit set enables the scene to change rapidly--without intermissions or the drawing of the curtain in order to place new sets.

UNITY: The sense that all the elements in a piece of writing fit together to create a harmonious effect.

construction symbolUNIVERSALISM: The theological doctrine that all humanity will eventually achieve spiritual salvation. In some versions of the doctrine, like that of Saint Origen in the fifth century, even Satan and the fallen angels would one day achieve salvation. Saint Augustine strongly argued against this doctrine, and the Fifth Ecumenical Council condemned Origenian teachings as heresy. C. S. Lewis was troubled by the fact that one of his favorite mentors and teachers, George MacDonald, believed in universalism. In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis creates a narrator-version of himself who takes a day-trip to purgatory/hell, and encounters MacDonald there to discuss salvation with him.

UNIVERSALS: Qualities of literature that appeal to readers in a wide variety of cultures and across a wide variety of historical periods--i.e., basic emotions, situations, values, and attitudes that readers can relate to regardless of other cultural or historical differences.

UNIVERSAL SYMBOL: Another term for an archetype.

UNMARKED WORD: See discussion under marked word.

UNRELEASED STOP: In linguistics, a stop sound without explosion (i.e., a puff of air) in the place where articulated stoppage would normally take place. For instance, this appears in some New York dialects. Here, when speaking the [t] in a word like outcome, a New Yorker might pronounce the first part of the [t], but rather than releasing the stop as a puff of air after the [t], the speaker might move directly into the /k/ sound that begins the syllable come.

UNRELIABLE NARRATOR: An imaginary storyteller or character who describes what he witnesses with surface accuracy, but misinterpets those events because of faulty perception, personal bias, or limited understanding. Often the writer or poet creating such an unreliable narrator leaves clues so that readers will perceive the unreliablity and question the interpretations offered. Examples of unreliable narrators arguably include "Geoffrey the pilgrim" in the Canterbury Tales, the character of Forest Gump in the movie of the same name, and possibly Wilson in "The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber." See discussion under authorial voice.

UNROUNDED VOWEL: See spread vowel.

UNROUNDING: The process of changing from a rounded vowel to a spread vowel. For instance, in the vowel u, Chaucer would have pronounced the letter as in the word full. By the 1500s, that sound changed to become the sound found in cut, sun, and but. That change is called unrounding. Contrast with the Great Vowel Shift.

UNSTRESSED: Lightly stressed as opposed to heavily stressed--i.e., a syllable that has little prominence when spoken aloud. Click here for more information in a PDF handout.

UNUSUAL PERSPECTIVE: A common poetic technique in 17th-century poetry, later also appearing frequently in 18th-century prose, in which the poet describes or presents a scene from an odd vantage point or from an uncommon point-of-view. The effect of the technique on readers is often defamiliarization. One example of unusual perspective appears in Andrew Marvell's "Upon Appleton House:"

And now to the abyss I pass
Of that unfathomable grass,
Where men like grasshoppers appear,
But grasshoppers are giants there;
They in their squeaking laugh, contemn
Us as we walk more low than them,
And from the precipices tall
Of the green spires to us do call. (369-76)


The unusual perspective in the lines above come from changing the viewer's position to that of a creature smaller than a grasshopper. Other poems might place the viewer's perspective in an unusual location (such as peeking out between the toes of a child), or in an impossibly distant local (such as outside the solar system looking down upon the dance of the planets), or in the perspective of an inanimate object, such as the prosopopoeia in "The Dream of the Rood." Probably the most famous examples from 18th-century prose would be the Islands of Liliput and Brobdingnag in Swift's Gulliver's Travels, in which Lemuel Gulliver first encounters a race of tiny, belligerent Liliputians and later a titanic race of morally superior beings who treat him as a toy. Swift plays with the size of various objects through Gulliver's interactions to help the reader see them in a new way.

UP-ARROW: Another term for an editor's caret.

URAL-ALTAIC: A hypothetical language family thought to include Uralic and Altaic.

URALIC: A non-Indo-European language family including Finno-Ugric and Samoyedic.

UR-TEXT: A hypothetical "best" version of a lost literary text based on correlating later manuscripts and examining the differences between them. An Ur-text is not an actual physical manuscript we can examine or see in a museum, but rather an imaginary reconstruction of one that must have existed at some past point in time based on available evidence. This reconstruction cannot be absolutely certain, but it is a useful thought experiment for helping editors decide between textual variants when creating an edition of a literary work.

Later manuscripts and printed texts often exist in literary families, with later versions adapted from earlier ones. Scribal corruption, printing errata, authorial revision, and deliberate bowdlerization or alteration by later editors can result in textual variants (slightly differing versions of the same basic text). It isn't always clear which of these versions is most accurate.

When a modern editor wants to print her own edition, she will have to decide which version(s) she will use. Likewise, modern scholars who want an authoritative copy for historical and comparative purposes must determine which alterations are clear errors and which ones represent authorial intention. In some cases, textual critics can determine that one copy is most authoritative and use it as the basis of a critical edition. They may be able to examine an author's original typed copy in the case of a recent author like Hemingway or Toni Morrison, for instance. Far more often, however, the matter is muddled. Perhaps, as is the case with some works by Edgar Allan Poe, Lord Byron, and Emily Dickinson, a poem exists in several slightly different versions in the author's own hand, or it exists in versions printed by different publishing houses that have minor alterations in diction, punctuation, and so on. Do those differences indicate that the author or poet changed her mind, and we should trust the more recent version as authoritative? Or does the older version, the first one that the public saw, count as the most important one, and are the later changes made by meddling editors? What about when we can't tell which one she wrote first and we can't ask the author because she has died?

This confusion is sharpened keenly in classical, medieval and Renaissance works. Finding "authorial intention" is difficult when, as in the case of certain Shakespearean plays, the first editions were printed in 1623, years after Shakespeare's actual death in 1616. It is even more challenging in the case of anonymous medieval authors when we aren't certain who they were and when they lived exactly. In the case of classical works like the Iliad or the Odyssey, the poem exists in literally thousands of different manuscripts--all copied down centuries after the heyday of Heroic Age Greece, and all varying slightly from each other in small passages. These are so removed from the original author, it may be pointless to use "authorial intention" as the guide to the best text.

In fashioning an Ur-text, the textual critic begins with the somewhat controversial assumption that "there is no original text," i.e., that not a single one of the surviving manuscripts represents the lost original one accurately and entirely. He then attempts to establish "families" of manuscripts by finding which ones have the same or similar readings in the same passages. If he can date the manuscripts by paleographic evidence, he can then arrange them into a stemma (plural stemmata), or family tree, with individual branches having the same textual reading for specific lines. In conjunction with other evidence, this often allows the scholar to pinpoint where and when one manuscript tradition branches off from another. For instance, we can speak of the Ellesmere family of manuscripts and the Hengwrt family of manuscripts in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Each family has within its members similar alterations, interpretations, errors, and editorial choices as those found in the Ellesmere and Hengwrt, which appear to be the oldest and least corrupt representatives of that group. Later copyists or scribes in the family reproduced the alterations, interpretations, errors, and editorial choices of earlier copyists or scribes in the same manuscript family. Determining this lineage allows modern scholars to identify and dismiss changes that were later added and confirm material that must have existed in older versions of the text. By placing the different families side by side and travelling up the family tree, the scholar can often gain fairly good insights into what the lost original might have looked like before it "mutated" into different stemma, much like modern geneticists seek to reconstruct divergence in species by identifying when and where specific mutations occurred in DNA.

Probably the most famous Ur-texts include the "Q-text," which in Biblical scholarship is thought to be a single source that about 40-70 years after Christ's death branched into the three synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (while the non-synoptic gospel of John developed from an independent manuscript family), and the "Ur-Hamlet," an earlier draft of Shakespeare's Hamlet that must have preceded the corrupt bad quartos of the play.

USAGE: The choice among grammatical, syntactic, or semantic options when the idea is that one or the other option is correct or preferred to the other. Usage changes and language changes over time.

UTA: Another term for the Japanese genre of poetry also called a waka or tanka. See discussion under tanka.

UTO-AZTECAN: A non-Indo-European language family found in Central America and the western sections of North America.Its members include the languages of Hopi and Nahuatl.

UTOPIA: An imaginary place or government in which political and social perfection has been reached in the material world as opposed to some spiritual afterlife as discussed in the Christian Bible or the Elysian fields of The Odyssey. The citizens of such utopias are typically universally clean, virtuous, healthy, and happy, or at least those who are criminals are always captured and appropriately punished. A utopian society is one that has cured all social ills. See discussion under Utopian literature, below. Contrast with dystopia.

UTOPIAN LITERATURE: The term utopia comes from a Greek pun. In Greek, eu + topos ("good" + "place") and ou + topos ("no" + "place") sound very similar. Thus, utopia at once suggests a perfect society and an impossible one. Utopian literature is a term for any writing that presents the reader with (or explores the idea of) a perfect society in the physical world, as opposed to a perfect society existing in an afterlife.The first literary utopia was probably Plato's ideal commonwealth in the Republic, circa 400 BCE, in which a group of debating philosophers seeking to define justice end up as a mental exercise creating a hypothetical perfect polis, or self-governing city of about 8,000 citizens. In this imaginary society, philosophers are the rulers, goods and women are communally owned, slavery is taken for granted, and children are bred eugenically. Artists, actors, and poets are largely exiled. Ramn Llull's utopia in Blanquerna (c.1280) continued the tradition, but had little literary impact. Some Arthurian literature had minor utopian elements in the idealization of King Arthur's court at Camelot, but the medieval poets mostly romanticized an imaginary past rather than using hypothetical utopias as a means of critiquing political structures and imagining alternatives. Later, Sir Thomas More's Utopia solidified the genre in 1516 and his name for the imaginary kingdom became the term used in reference to the genre more generally. Later versions include Andreae's Christianopolis, Campanella's City of the Sun, Bacon's New Atlantis, Samuel Gott's New Jerusalem, Winstanley's The Law of Freedom in a Platform, Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, William Morris's News from Nowhere, Theodor Hertzka's Freeland, H. G. Wells's A Modern Utopia (my personal favorite), and more recent additions like Ecotopia.

Common features of the genre include elaborate multil-lingual puns or anagrams in the names of characters or in the geographic features of the imaginary landscape, native guides that show the way through the land to a narrator who is an outsider or stranger to the utopian society, and extensive criticism about contemporary political, social, economic, or ethical problems. A common misconception is that Utopian models are meant to be actual blueprints for a better way of life. In actual fact, the point of such literature is to help the reader better understand the problems, paradoxes, or faults found in existing political institutions rather than suggest necessarilya specific design for perfect politics.

[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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