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Literary Terms and Definitions: Z

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.

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ZANI (Italian, "clown"): A stock character in the commedia dell'arte, the zani was a buffoonish servant, a jester, a butt of jokes, i.e., what twentieth-century entertainment would call a "stooge." The modern English word zany comes from this Italian term.

ZARZUELA (Spanish): A musical play performed before a full opera in Spanish theater of the 17th and 18th centuries. The genre was popular at court and at weddings for the upper class between 1630 and 1705. Shipley lists Lope de Vega's Selva sui Amor and Calderon's Purpura de la Rosa as two examples (633).

ZEITGEIST (German "Time-ghost" or "Spirit of the Age"): The preferences, fashions, and trends that characterize the intangible essence of a specific historical period.

ZENO'S PARADOX: The name comes from Zeno of Elea (born c. 495-480 BCE). Zeno proposed four paradoxes in order to challenge accepted notions of space and time as defined in various philosophical circles. The term "Zeno's Paradox" is usually applied to the paradox of the arrow or the paradox of Hercules and the tortoise, but the other two paradoxes are often lumped under the same designation. To illustrate a sample paradox, Zeno asks the audience to imagine the great athlete Achilles engaged in a race with a tortoise. The tortoise is given a head start of twelve feet or so in front of Achilles, and the race-track is a hundred yards long. When the race begins, Achilles begins charging ahead with a speed much faster than the tortoise's crawl. However, to reach the half-way point between his starting position and the tortoise's position, Achilles must spend half of his time reaching the midway point before he has covered half the distance. Then again, before Achilles can ever travel a quarter of the distance to the tortoise (the half-way point to the half-way point), he must spend half of his time covering that distance. Then again, according to traditional definitions of space and time, he must spend half his time traveling to reach the half-way point to that half-way distance, and so on, ad infinitum. No matter how fast Achilles runs, by the normal definitions of spatial and temporal distance, Achilles will never be able to catch up with the turtle because an endless series of "half-way" points must be crossed first. In fact, any movement at all should be impossible because Achilles must cross an endless number of "halfway" points before any motion can take place at all, each movement taking an infinitely smaller slice of time to do. Zeno's paradoxes perplexed mathematicians and logicians for millennia. It wasn't until Cantor developed the theory of infinite sets that the paradoxes could be fully resolved--but that idea only came about in the 1860s and 1870s. In literature, postmodern writers such as Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino, and postmodern films like Run Lola Run all use allusions to Zeno's Paradox to convey ideas about the absurdity of time and distance.

ZEUGMA (Greek "yoking" or "bonding"): Artfully using a single verb to refer to two different objects in an ungrammatical but striking way, or artfully using an adjective to refer to two separate nouns, even though the adjective would logically only be appropriate for one of the two. For instance, in Shakespeare's Henry V, Fluellen cries, "Kill the boys and the luggage." (The verb kill normally wouldn't be applied to luggage, so it counts a zeugma.) If the resulting grammatical construction changes the verb's initial meaning but is still grammatically correct, the zeugma is sometimes called syllepsis--though in actual practice, most critics use the general term zeugma to include both the grammatical and ungrammatical types interchangeably. Examples of these syllepses and zeugmas abound--particulary in seventeenth-century literature:

"If we don't hang together, we shall hang separately!" (Ben Franklin).
"The queen of England sometimes takes advice in that chamber, and sometimes tea."
". . . losing her heart or her necklace at the ball." (Alexander Pope).
"She exhausted both her audience and her repertoire." (anonymous)
"She looked at the object with suspicion and a magnifying glass." (Charles Dickens)
"Miss Bolo went home in a flood of tears and a sedan chair." (Charles Dickens)
[King Charles I was . . .] "Circled with his royal diadem and the affections of his people." (Mistress Evelyn)
"I fancy
you were gone down to cultivate matrimony and your estate in the country" (Goldsmith)
"Her beauty pierced mine eye, her speech my wo[e]ful breast, / Her presence all the powers of my discourse."

Zeugma is also known as synezeugmenon. Some rhetoricians subdivide zeugma according to the location of the verb that functions as the shared connector, referring to a zeugma as a prozeugma or protozeugma if the connector comes before the various subsequent components (as illustrated in the last example listed above). They refer to the figure as a mesozeugma if the connector appears in the middle of a phrase. For example, "And now a bubble burst, and now a world" (Lanham 99). Rhetoricians refer to the figure as a hypozeugma if the connector appears at the end. An example of a hypozeugma would be "Hours, days, weeks, months, and years do pass away" (Sherry, quoted in Lanham 88).

ZOHAR (Hebrew, "splendor"): A medieval commentary on the Pentateuch appearing in several books written in Aramaic and Hebrew, widely considered the most important work of Kabala. It first appeared in 13th century Spain, published by Moses de Leon, who claimed it was the work of a legendary second century Rabbi, Shimon bar Yochai.

ZOOMORPHIC: Another term for therianthropic or theriomorphic. The noun form is zoomorphism.

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

Works Cited:

  • Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 6th edition. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Pub., 1993. [Now superseded by later editions.]
  • ---. "Poetic Forms and Literary Terminology." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th edition. Volume 1. New York: Norton, 2000. 2944-61. 2 Vols.
  • Algeo, John and Thomas Pyles. The Origin and Development of the English Language. 5th edition. U.S.A., 2004.
  • 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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