Terms and Definitions: W
This page is under perpetual
construction! It was last updated June 8th, 2016.
This list is meant to assist,
not intimidate. Use it as a touchstone for important concepts
and vocabulary that we will cover during the term. Vocabulary
terms are listed alphabetically.
A Japanese genre of poetry closely related to the tanka,
consisting of alternate five- and seven-syllable lines. The
primary difference seems to be that the word waka dates
back to the sixth century BCE, while the more familiar terms
tanka and uta date back to an eighth-century CE
poetry anthology, the Manyoshu. See tanka.
(German, "Wander-Year"): A period in a character's
life during which she is absent from her normal routine, engaged
in thought, travel, and a quest for novel experiences or insight.
WARS OF THE ROSES: An internal English conflict or civil war that lasted from 1455-1487, fought between the families descended from Edward III and the families descended from Henry IV. The event forms the background of Shakespeare's Henry VI plays and Richard III, and strongly influenced Sir Thomas Malory's depiction of King Arthur in Le Morte Darthur as he wrote in 1469-1470. Click here for more discussion.
WARP SPASM: In ancient Irish literature, a beserk battle-rage in which the hero's physical form conventionally transforms into a distorted and grotesque appearance before he enters battle. The most famous examples appear in The Táin Bó Cuailinge, in which the hero Cuchulainn has his joints bend backwards, one eye shrinks inside his skull while the other expands to monstrous size, his lungs and liver flap up into his mouth, fire and smoke boils from his head, and his hair sticks up in spikes sharp enough to impale apples. Along with the warp spasm, the ancient Irish heros conventionally engaged in a number of supernatural battle-feats. Again, The Táin catalogs without much explanation the ones Cuchulainn learned from the warrior-woman Scáthach. The list of skills includes juggling nine apples, "the thunder feat," the feat of the sword-edge, the body-feat, the feat of the heroic salmon-leap, the pole-throw, the use of the gae bolga (a barbed spear), the spurt of seed, the feat of throwing chariot-wheels, the breath-feat, the hero's scream, the stunning shot, and ability to step on spears thrown in flight.
DECLENSION: In linguistics, a Germanic/Teutonic noun
or adjective that changes little from one declension to another.
The consonant [n] is prominent
in this declension.
ENDING: In poetry, another term for a feminine ending,
in which the last syllable of a metrical line is unstressed.
See discussion under meter.
VERB: In linguistics, a Germanic verb whose principle
parts require the addition of a dental
suffix--i.e., typically a /d/
or a /t/. Contrast with a strong
verb, one whose linguistic principal parts were
formed by ablaut
of the stem vowel, Examples of a strong verb surviving in modern
English would be the verb swim, with forms like swim,
swam, swum, as opposed to a weak verb like
indicate, indicated, or have indicated.
mark used in some Eastern European countries. It indicates a
sound like the digraph <ch>
The quality created in a syllable of verse in which that
both (a) has heavy stress and (b) has a long vowel that stretches
out the duration of time necessary to pronounce that syllable.
For instance, consider this line by Tennyson:
organ voice of England.
As Babette Deutsch points
out, in this line of nine syllables, we have five syllables
with heavy stress, and in each case, the vowel is a "long"
vowel (193). See quantitative and qualitative
PLAY (French, "la piece bien faite"): A
form of French theater developed in the 1800s. Eugène
Scribe and Victorien Sardou popularized it. The well-made play
involves secrets and timely arrivals of surprise characters
and sudden twists in plot introduced by external threats. In
modern critical parlance, the term is considered pejorative
and it refers to any overly neat and precisely constructed play,
especially one that uses artificial authorial interventions
to cause problems for the characters. Well-made plays continued
to be popular through the 1950s. A recent example is Agatha
Christie's The Mousetrap from 1952. Ibsen's A Doll's
House also exhibits traits of the well-made play.
(German, "manner of looking at the world"): The philosophy
of an individual, an artist, or a group of like-minded individuals,
especially the philosophy concerning one's relationship to civilization.
(German, "world-sight"):The general attitude toward
life and reality an individual or character demonstrates. Cf.
(German "world-woe"): According to Shipley's Dictionary of World Literature (623), Jean Paul (1763-1825) coined this German phrase to refer to the sentimental pessimism
one feels--the sorrow, disillusionment, and discontent one accepts
as a part of existence--especially when comingled with egotism, arrogant pride, and cynicism. This attitude is especially prevalent
in certain post-Napoleonic German and Italian existential
writers including Musset, Leopardi, Platen, and Heine--but it also typifies some English poets/poems such as the poetic speaker in Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (Shipley 632).
and WU: The two main classes of traditional Chinese
drama: civil (wên) and martial (wu). The
"script" of these plays is more like a roughly outlined
scenario than an actual dramatic text as westerners understand
drama. The plays include dialogue in prose and verse, dancing,
mime, operatic singing, and acrobatics. Conventionally, the
action takes place on a square stage. The subject-matter deals
with traditional legends and historical events. The narrative
points to a moral, and their setting seems to be a timeless
amalgamation of various Chinese periods blended together.
Various props are conventionally
simple and may represent various other objects. For instance,
a table may represent a wall, an altar, a hill, a judicial bench,
or a bridge. To represent wind, characters on the edge of the
stage will flap four black flags vigorously. A cap marked with
red cloth represents a decapitated head, and so on. Likewise,
there are symbol gestures for actors. For example, holding a
sleeve up near one's eyes denotes weeping.
Musical accompaniment is
done with instruments similar to a Western fiddle, but the orchestra
(which also stands on the stage) uses brass percussion instruments.
Both actors and singers use falsetto voices, though comedic
actors render their lines in basso tones.
There are four types of
character in Chinese drama: shêng
(general male characters), tan (general
female characters), hua-lien (strong
vigorous male characters with faces painted like masks), and
ch'ou (comedians). Costumes for each
role are lavish, adapted from the styles of T'ang, Sung, Yüan,
and Ming dynasties. Conventionally, emperors wear red on stage,
government officials wear yellow, and so on. The make-up for
various characters denotes their personality: yellow face-paint
indicates guile; black indicates integrity and honesty; white
indicates treachery and deceit; red shows loyalty and courage,
and green indicates a character is a demon, brigand, or outlaw.
Blue or red beards indicate a creature is a supernatural being,
and the length of a character's beard indicates the character's
relative status and prestige.
Wên and Wu
conventions have had a powerful influence on later forms of
Chinese drama. Contrast with No plays and karagöz
An alternative spelling for wergild.
(Anglo-Saxon, lit. "man-gold," also spelled wergeld):
The legal system of many Germanic tribes, including the Anglo-Saxons.
This tradition allowed an individual and his family to make
amends for a crime by paying a fine known as wergild
to the family of another man whom he had injured or killed.
The price varied depending upon the nature of the injury and
the status of the injured man. Surviving laws of Wihtfrid (8th
century CE) show how elaborate the wergild system had
become by the ninth century. Wihtfrid included a varying price
in silver for each tooth knocked out during a fight. If an individual
could not or would not pay the wergild, the injured family
was considered within its traditional rights to kill a member
of the culprit's family of similar rank and status. This process
often led to extended blood-feuds
lasting several generations. The concerns of wergild
appear prominently in Anglo-Saxon poems such as Beowulf,
in which the supernatural predations of the monsters are figured
in the legalistic language associated with this practice. See
NB: Wergild should not be confused with Danegeld,
the practice of paying extortive Vikings to go away without
WERTHERISM: The term comes from the character Werther in Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774) i.e., The Sorrows of Young Werther. In the novella, Werther is a hypersensative, emotional young teenager who ends up committing suicide. Thus, a "Wertherism" is any action, behavior, or attitude reminiscent of Werther--i.e., fits of depression, suicidal urges, hopeless romantic longings, Weltschmerz, or what 21st century American teenagers would call "emo" behavior.
GERMANIC: A sub-branch of the Germanic family of languages
including Dutch, English,
and German, in contrast
with the North Germanic sub-branch (including
Old Norse, Norwegian,
and Icelandic) and the
East Germanic sub-branch (which included the
now extinct language of Gothic).
SAXON: The Old English dialect
spoken in Wessex.
A literary and cinematic genre
marked by numerous conventions. The usual setting is a short
main street in a dust-blown frontier village of the American
west during the 1800s. Traditionally, the protagonists wear
white hats and the antagonists wear black hats. Conventional
characters include Mexican bandits, stereotypical Plains Indians
bedecked in feathered headresses, a town drunkard, a local madame
who assists the protagonist, and so on. Often, the thematic
concern is a struggle between law and lawlessness, between communal
health and chaotic individualism. Historical accuracy usually
comes second place to action, and the dramatic climax often
takes the form of a dual or gunfight at high noon. "Spaghetti
westerns" are a cinematic subgenre of the western film
consisting of those films overseen by Italian directors and
filmed completely or partly in Italy--including a large number
of Clint Eastwood westerns from the 1960s and 1970s. Recent
writers of westerns include Louis Lamour, Walter Van Tilburg
Clark, A. B. Guthrie, Conrad Richter, and H. L. Davis.
WHEEL: See under
discussion of Bob-and-Wheel.
term for Bob-and-Wheel.
In Questions of English, Marshall notes the term Whig
originally was an insulting nickname for Scottish Presbyterian
rebels, but after 1680 it became a label for the political faction
in England that opposed James, Duke of York (James II) as an
heir to the throne because of his Roman Catholicism. Eventually,
during the time of Swift, Addison, Steele, and Johnson in the
1700s, the terms Tory and Whig became the
names of the two major political factions in England. Tories
were associated with the Established Chuch of England (the Anglican
Church) and conservative country gentry, but the Whigs were
associated with religious dissenters (Quakers, anabaptists,
Puritans, etc.) and the rising bourgeois class of industrialists
wanting political change. In modern British politics, the term
Tory today remains informally attached to the Conservative
party, but the word Whig has fallen out of political
use for the Liberal Party (Marshall 11-12). See also
WHODUNNIT (from English "Who Done It?"): A slang term for a crime-story or mystery novel in which the plot revolves around solving a crime--especially a murder.
HYPOTHESIS: A proposal that language affects how its
speakers perceive and react to the world--and that the limitations
of language thus become the limitations of human thought. Although
first set forward by amateur linguist Benjamin Whorf (i.e.,
a fire engineer writing in an M.I.T. alumni magazine) and inspired
by a false understanding of Inuit (Eskimo) language, this hypothesis
has been remarkably influential in cognitive psychology and
linguistics. In fiction like George Orwell's 1984,
government control of language allows the party to expunge thoughtcrime
(illegal ideas) in its dystopian monopoly of intellect. This
idea is based largely on Whorf's Hypothesis.
In printing, a widow is a single short line ending a paragraph
but separated from the earlier lines in that paragraph by a
page break, thus appearing by itself at the top of the next
page or column. Widows traditionally should be avoided in printing
and in college essays. Luckily for students, writers can avoid
such a faux pas by turning on "widow/orphan control"
on their word processors. The trick in Microsoft Word is to
click on the "format" option and then select "paragraph."
Then select "line and page breaks" to find the appropriate
option. Contrast with orphan.
SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF: Temporarily
and willingly setting aside our beliefs about reality in order
to enjoy the make-believe of a play, a poem, film, or a story.
Perfectly intelligent readers can enjoy tall-tales about Pecos
Bill roping a whirlwind, or vampires invading a small town in
Maine, or frightening alternative histories in which Hitler
wins World War II, without being "gullible" or "childish."
To do so, however, the audience members must set aside their
sense of "what's real" for the duration of the play,
or the movie, or the book.
Samuel Coleridge coined
the English phrase in Chapter 14 of Biographia Literaria
to describe the way a reader is implicitly "asked"
to set aside his notions of reality and accept the dramatic
conventions of the theater and stage or other fictional work.
. . My endeavours should be directed to persons and characters
supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer
from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of
truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination
that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which
constitutes poetic faith (quoted
in Cuddon, page 1044).
Coleridge may have been
inspired by the French phrase, "cette
belle suspension d'esprit de law sceptique"
from François de La Mothe le Vayer, or by Ben Jonson's
writing where Jonson notes, "To many
things a man should owe but a temporary belief, and suspension
of his own judgment." Cf. verisimilitude.
MANUSCRIPT: A handwritten book or manuscript
by two scribes containing the text of Malory's Le Morte
D'Arthur. Librarian Walter Oakeshott discovered the text
in 1934. It had been locked in a safe in the Warden's lodgings
of Winchester College. The scholar Lotte Hellinga later demonstrated
that the manuscript had been kept in William Caxton's print-shop
at the same time that he was working on his 1485 printed edition
of Le Morte D'Arthur. The Winchester MS provides additional
autobiographical information about Malory. It has different
divisions and decorations than the Caxton print, and literally
thousands of variant readings. The best facsimile is N. R. Ker's
The Winchester Malory: A Facsimile, as published by
Oxford University Press in conjunction with the Early English
Text Society (Oxford, 1976).
WINE PRIZING: See baade setaee.
FULFILLMENT: In psychoanalytic criticism, wish fulfillment
refers to something in literature that satisfies the conscious
or subconscious desires of either the creator or the reader
of a work. A writer of action adventure stories, for instance,
might imagine a male protagonist who is stronger, tougher, younger,
and smarter than himself. This protagonist lives a sophisticated
life of international intrigue; he woos exotic women and foils
evil plots, doing all the things the writer himself cannot do.
Readers sharing similar conscious or unconscious fantasies may
be attracted to such stories to fulfill their own desires vicariously.
Nearly all popular literature has some element of wish fulfillment
in it. This phenomenon usually begins with children's literature
and fairy tales ("and they lived happily ever after").
Some juvenile fantasy novels offer beautiful and exotic landscapes
where the lines between good and evil are always clear and distinct,
and where magic allows the characters to participate in or control
awesome events. Crime novels may present readers with characters
who live outside the constrictions of law and morality in a
way the reader cannot. Harlequin romance novels or similar bodice-rippers
promise whirlwind romance and steamy sex without unpleasant
physical consequences or imperfect enjoyment. Western novels
offer unspoiled naturalistic landscapes and lawless terrain
far away from the pollution, litter, and legislative restrictions
of the modern world.
Aside from popular entertainment,
the same element of wish fulfillment can appear in more serious
literary works as well. Utopian
literature fulfills our desires for a perfect society,
even as it critiques the failures of real government. An atheistic
critic might argue that religious narratives are another example
of wish fulfillment, pointing out that stories of eternal life
in paradise for the good fulfills humanity's desire to avoid
death, that tales of angels or benevolent spirits fulfill our
desires to be loved, protected, and watched over, that descriptions
of hell or apocalypse fulfill our desires for all criminals
and wrong-doers to be punished and the imperfections of the
world wiped away.
Wish fulfillment is not
limited to positive desires. Freud speaks of thanatos
(the death wish), a subconscious desire to reject life and the
slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. The Oedipal
complex is a subconscious desire to murder or destroy
a father-figure and incestuously take his sexual role with the
mother. Through psychological projection, viewers may sublimate
destructive desires by placing it on the characters in a tragedy,
"enjoying" a healthy orgy of grief and catharsis.
Readers may also project their own subconscious impulses toward
hateful or forbidden behavior onto the villain, marveling at
the antagonist's imaginary crimes and paradoxically reveling
in the bad guy's eventual punishment at a safe distance.
Note that clever writers
might create characters and imagine these characters with sufficient
psychological detail to suggest elements of fictional wish fulfillment
in them, as if an imaginary person had psychological depth of
her own. For instance, Chaucer creates the fictional Wife of
Bath, an aging pilgrim seeking her sixth husband while on pilgrimage.
The Wife tells a tale to the other pilgrims. Her narrative includes
a fairy tale hag who embodies the desires of the Wife herself.
This hag wins the love of a handsome young knight, gains dominance
over him in the marriage, and through his love and submission,
magically transforms herself into a young woman again. These
desires might correspond to the fantasies of the Wife of Bath
herself as a fictional storyteller. See also escapist
WIT (from Anglo-Saxon witan, "to know"):
In modern vernacular, the word wit refers to elements
in a literary work designed to make the audience laugh or feel
amused, i.e., the term is used synonymously with humor.
In sixteenth-century usage, Renaissance writers thought of wit merely as the intellectual ability to write poetry, as Sir Philip Sidney suggests (Cuddon 1045). In the seventeenth-century usage, usage changed. The term humor then generally referred to broad emotional mood--but wit much more
exclusively denotes intellectual originality, ingenuity, and mental acuity--especially
in the sense of using paradoxes, making clever verbal expressions,
and coining concise or deft phrases. As Alexander Pope put it,
Wit is Nature to advantage dress'd, / What oft was thought,
but ne'er so well express'd."
The issue of what counted as wit and what did not was a contentious matter for Enlightenment critics and their descendants. For Dryden, Cowley, and Pope, wit was a matter of creating the proper word or proper image to convey an established and accepted idea in a new way--a blending of conservative thought with original expression. Samuel Johnson disagreed, scorning "heterogenous ideas . . . yoked by violence together" (qtd. in Cuddon 1045). Addison in several issues of The Spectator attempts to distinguish between "false" and "true wit," concluding that wit must combine resemblence or recognition with an oppositional surprise. He gives an example of a twist on Petrarchan imagery--"My mistress' bosom is as white as snow--and as cold." Here, the wit comes from a familiar and common Petrachan image referring to the beauty of Laura's snow-white breasts, but he deflates the expected passion by the imagery of her cold response (Shipley 626). Addison goes on to list twelve types of "false wit" that he condemns as intellectually unworthy:
a poem ringing the changes of a word
double rhymes--i.e. "perfect rhymes" like time/thyme
any pun that cannot be translated into another language ("vox et praeterea nihil")
witches' prayers or rime brisée--i.e., verse that can be read one way to have one meaning, but which means the opposite when read backward.
For Addison, using any of the above techniques disqualifies one as being a "true wit." Later, William Hazlitt distinguished between "wit" (which he saw as artificial and emotionally sterile intellectual exercises) with "imagination" (which he saw as valid and more worthy originality) (Cuddon 1045). Finally, in the 19th century, wit was associated with a lack of gravity. The Victorian critic Matthew Arnold, for instance, condemned Chaucer and Pope for their "wittiness," their lack of "high seriousness" (1045). Finally, T. S. Eliot swung the pendulum back again, and he rehabilitated the reputation of John Donne, Andrew Marvell, and similar poets in his critical writings because he saw them as figures able to combine wit and seriousness--an assessment most 20th- and early 21st-century critics would uphold (1045).
In the stage directions for Shakespeare's plays, a "noise
within" indicates offstage sound effects such as shouts,
drums, and trumpets. These noises were produced typically in
ENGLISH: English as used worldwide or internationally
and the common features of this international English.
Also called blood-rain, this is a supernatural motif
common in Old Norse sagas in which a rain of blood--sometimes
boiling--falls on a ship or field, or, alternatively, an
unattended and clean weapon spontaneously begins to drip
blood. This motif serves as foreshadowing of coming violence.
Old Icelandic literature probably borrowed the motif from
Irish sources (see Robert Cook's notes to the Penguin Classics
edition of Njal's Saga, page 321).
As Babette Deutsch phrases it, wrenched accent is "The
triumph of metrical stress over word accent when the two conflict"
(195). Normally, a word like body
typically has a strong stress on the first syllable and a weaker
stress on the second syllable. However, the overwhelming pattern
of surrounding meter can come into conflict with this natural
stress pattern and even overwhelm it, as is the case in the
last line of this stanza by Rossetti:
many's the good gift, Lord Sands,
You've promised oft to me;
But the gift of yours I keep today,
Is the babe in my body." (qtd.
in Deutsch 195)
If you read the passage aloud, you will probably find that a strong impulse moves you to alter the normal accent of the word body so that a heavy stress falls on the final syllable rather than the noraml first syllable. That phenomenon is wrenched accent.
(or wyn): A letter shape used in writing
Middle English. Click here
to see an example.
Often translated as "fate," wyrd is an Anglo-Saxon
term that embodies the concept of inevitability in Old English
poetry. Unlike destiny, in which one imagines looking forward
into the future to see the outcome of one's life, wyrd
appears to be linked to the past. As an example illustrating
this difference, a male speaker might claim, "It is my
destiny to eat too many hamburgers, develop high cholesterol,
and die of a heart attack in Pittsburgh at age fifty-three."
The speaker is predicting what will inevitably happen to him,
what is fated to occur sometime in the future. On the other
hand, one might claim, "It is my wyrd to be born
as a Caucasian child to impoverished parents who neglected to
feed me properly, so that my health is always bad." In
the first case, the speaker describing destiny implies that
the future is set, and therefore the outcome of his life is
beyond his control. In the second case, the speaker describing
wyrd implies that the past is unchangeable, and therefore
the current circumstances in which he finds himself are beyond
his alteration. In Anglo-Saxon narratives, heroic speakers like
Beowulf describe themselves as being "fated" (i.e.,
having a wyrd) that requires them to act in a certain
way. It is Beowulf's wyrd to help King Hrothgar, not
because some abstract destiny wills it so, but because in the
past, Hrothgar helped Beowulf's father, and it is Beowulf's
duty to return that favor. The exact circumstances are beyond
Beowulf's control, but Beowulf can choose how he reacts to that
"fate." This idea contrasts with the Greek idea of
Although wyrd dies
out in Middle English and Early Modern usage, some scholarly
speculation has posited that the three "weird" sisters
in Macbeth may actually be the three "wyrd"
sisters, thus the three fates in an archetypal
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:
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Algeo, John and Thomas Pyles.
The Origin and Development of the English Language. 5th edition.
Baugh, A. C. and
Thomas Cable. A History of
the English Language. 6th edition. Boston: Pearson Publishing, 2013.
Brown, Michelle P. Understanding
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Library and the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1994.
Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion.
[Originally published 1977 as Griechische Religion der archaischen
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Catholic University of America
Editorial Staff. The New Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: McGraw-Hill.
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Crow, Martin and
Virginia E. Leland. "A Chronology
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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
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Row, 1974. Reprint as Barnes and Noble Edition, 1981.
Drout, Michael D. C. J.R.R. Tolkien
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Duffy, Seán. Medieval
Ireland: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2005.
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