Terms and Definitions: F
This page is under perpetual
construction! It was last updated 5 November 2014.
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 brief story illustrating human tendencies through animal characters.
Unlike the parables, fables often include talking animals
as the principal
characters. The interaction of these animals or
objects reveals general truths about human nature,
i.e., a person can learn practical lessons from the fictional
However, unlike a parable, the lesson learned is not necessarily
allegorical. Each animal is not necessarily a symbol for something
the reader learns the lesson as an exemplum--an example
of what one should or should not do. The sixth century (BCE)
Greek writer Aesop is most credited as an author of
fables, but Phaedrus and Babrius in the first century (CE)
works to produce the tales we know today. A famous collection
of Indian fables was the Sanskrit
Bidpai (circa 300 CE), and in the medieval period, Marie
de France (c. 1200 CE) composed 102 fables in verse. After
1600s, fables increasingly became common as a form of children's
literature. See also allegory,
Click here for a PDF
handout discussing the difference between fables and
(plural, fabliaux): A humorous, frequently ribald
or "dirty" narrative popular with French poets, who
traditionally wrote the story in octosyllabic couplets. The
tales frequently revolve around trickery, practical jokes, sexual
mishaps, scatology, mistaken identity, and bodily humor. Chaucer
included several fabliaux in The Canterbury Tales,
including the stories of the Shipman, the Friar, the Miller,
the Reeve, and the Cook. Examples from French literature include
Les Quatre Souhais Saint Martin, Audigier, and
Beranger au Long Cul (Beranger of the Long Ass).
A bookseller's term for obscene or humorous books.
COPY: A corrected--but not necessarily entirely correct--manuscript
that a dramatist might submit to a theatre company, as distinct
from the draft version known as "foul papers."
TALE: In common parlance, a tale about elves, dragons, hobgoblins,
sprites, and other fantastic magical beings set vaguely in the
distant past ("once upon a time"), often in a pseudo-medieval
world. Fairy tales include shape-shifting spirits with mischievous
temperaments, superhuman knowledge, and far-reaching power to
interfere with the normal affairs of humanity. Other conventions
include magic, charms, disguises, talking animals, and a hero
or heroine who overcomes obstacles to "live happily ever
after." The most famous compilers include Hans Christian
Anderson (Denmark), the Grimm
brothers (Germany), and Charles Perrault (France). Fairy
tales grew out of the oral tradition of folktales, and later
were transcribed as prose narratives. Examples from the European
tradition include the tales of Prince Charming, Red Riding Hood,
Puss in Boots, and Cinderella. An example from Middle-Eastern
tradition would be Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. In scholarly
literature, fairy tales are also referred to by the German term
märchen. In spite of the stories' surface
simplicity, many critics note that fairy tales often contain
psychological depth, especially in terms of childhood anxiety
and wish fulfillment. Modern writers such as Thackeray, Oscar
Wilde, Ruskin, Anne Rice, Ursula Leguin, and Jean Ingelow have
tried their hand at writing fairy tales. Some critics have suggested
that the Wife of Bath's narrative in The Canterbury Tales
and the lais of Marie de France also have qualities of the fairy
UNKNOWN, THE: See discussion under bel
COGNATE: See discussion under cognate. Cf. "faux amis," below.
CULTURE: The anthropological term for a culture in
which masculine behavior revolves around a code of martial honor.
These cultures embody the idea of death before dishonor.
Such civilizations often glorify military prowess and romanticize
death in battle. Typically, such a society rewards men who display
bravery by (a) engaging in risk-taking behavior to enhance one's
reputation, (b) facing certain death in preference to accusations
of cowardice, and (c) displaying loyalty to one's king, chieftain,
liege lord, or other authoritative figure in the face of adversity. Those
in power may reward such brave followers with land, material
wealth, or social status, but the most important and most typical
reward is fame or a good reputation. Especially in fatalistic
fame/shame cultures, fame is the most valuable reward since
it alone will exist after a hero's death. Just as such cultures
reward bravery, loyalty, and martial prowess with the promise
of fame, they punish cowardice, treachery, and weakness in battle
with the threat of shame and mockery. A fame/shame culture
is only successful in regulating behavior when an individual's
fear of shame outweighs the fear of death. This dichotomy
of fame/shame serves as a carrot and stick to regulate behavior
in an otherwise chaotic and violent society. Sample behaviors
linked with fame/shame cultures include the beot
in Anglo-Saxon culture, the act of "counting coup"
among certain Amerindian tribes, displays of trophies among
certain head-hunting tribes and the Irish Celts, and the commemoration
of war-heros in national monuments or songs in cultures worldwide.
We can see signs of fame/shame
culture in the heroic poetry of the Anglo-Saxons,
where the poem "The Battle of Maldon" praises by name
those warriors who stood their ground with Byrtnoth to die fighting
the Viking invaders and condemns by name those men who fled
the battle and survived. Characteristically, the poem lists
the men's lineage in order to spread the honor or shame to other
family members as well. The poem Beowulf also shows
signs of fame/shame culture in the behavior of Hrothgar's coast-guard,
who challenges over a dozen gigantic armed men, and the boasts
of Beowulf himself.
It is interesting that
not all militaristic or violent cultures use the fame/shame
mechanism to ensure bravery and regulate martial behavior.
Fame/shame cultures require men to deliberately seek the
rewards of bravery
and consciously fear the social stigma of cowardice. The point
isn't that a hero is unafraid of death. The point is that
hero acts in spite of being afraid. In contrast, some
martial cultures seek to short-circuit fear by repressing
or by encouraging warriors to enter altered states of consciousness.
Medieval Vikings had the tradition of the berserker,
in which the warrior apparently entered a hypnogogic, frenzied
state to lose his awareness of fear and pain. Similarly, the
path of bushido among the Japanese samauri
was heavily influenced by the Buddhist doctrine of nirvana
(mental and emotional emptiness), in which the warrior enters
combat in a Zen-like emotional state, a mindset in which he
is divorced from his emotions and thoughts so that his martial
behavior is reflexive and automatic rather than emotional.
samauri class went so far as to have a funeral for
living warriors as soon as they entered the service of a Japanese
lord because the samauri accepted their own deaths
as soon as they took the path of bushido, and were
thus accordingly cut off from the ties of family and loved
ones. See also kleos.
ADDRESS: Not to be confused with the animal known as a witch's
familiar (see immediately below), the familiar address
is the use of informal pronouns in Middle English and Early
Modern English. Pronouns such as "Thou,
and thine" are familiar
or informal pronouns used to speak either affectionately to
someone of equal or lesser rank, or to speak contemptuously
and callously to a lesser. Pronouns such as You
[nominative], your, you
[objective], and yours imply
a more formal and respectful sort of address. This division
in Middle English and Early Modern English is akin to the division
in Spanish between tu and
usted, or the similar observance
of tu and vous
in French. In Shakespeare's plays and in Middle English literature,
these pronouns provide actors with a strong hint concerning
the tone in which words should be spoken.
WITCH'S: In the eyes of medieval and Renaissance
churchmen, and in much of medieval and Renaissance literature,
it was a common belief that witches kept familiars. These familiars
were thought to be demonic spirits masquerading as small animals--perhaps
a black cat, goat, dog, or toad. Inquisitors and churchmen held
that such spirits presented themselves to witches and served
them after the witches struck a bargain with diabolical powers.
The three Weird Sisters in Macbeth open the play in a
scene in which their familiars summon them away to work mischief.
FAMILY RHYME: In “family rhyme," rhyming is based on phonetic similarities. For the sake of contrast, consider what most people consider "normal" rhymes. In common perception, the rhyming syllables must have the same vowel sounds, and the consonant sounds after the vowel (if any do appear) must also have the same sounds, and the rhyming syllables typically begin differently. However, in family rhyme, the poet tries to replace one phoneme with a member of the same phonetic family. So, a plosive (such as b, d, g, p, t, or k) will “rhyme” with another plosive. A fricative (such as v, z, zh, j, f, th, s, sh, or ch) will “rhyme” with another fricative. Finally, a nasal like m, n, or ng will “rhyme” with another nasal. Thus, in family rhyme, the following words would be considered rhymes with each other: cut/pluck, rich/fish, fun/rung. Often the terms “half-rhyme” and inexact rhyme are used loosely and interchangeably for family rhyme.
Before the 19th Century, the word fancy meant roughly
the same thing as imagination as opposed to the mental
processes of reason, logic, and memory. The Romantic poets,
however, made a pivotal distinction between the two terms that
proved integral in their theories of creativity. They used fancy
to refer to the mental process in which memories or sensory
perceptions are jumbled together to create new chimerical ideas.
This process was similar but inferior to the higher mental faculty
of imagination, which in its highest form, would create
completely new ideas and entirely novel images rather than merely
reassemble memories and sensory impressions in a different combination.
Coleridge, in chapter thirteen of Biographia Literaria
(1817), suggests that "Fancy . .
. has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites.
The Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of Memory emancipated
from the order of time and space." The fancy was
limited to taking already-assembled ideas, images, and memories,
and then reassembling them without altering or improving the
components. Imagination, however, produced truly original work.
Imagination was seen as (as Coleridge says) "essentially
vital," functioning less like the Fancy's mechanical sorting
and instead growing in a more organic manner. He claims imagination
"generates and produces forms of its own," and it
is capable of merging opposites together in a new synthesis.
He claims: "imagination . . .
reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite
or discordant qualities of sameness, with difference; of the
general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image"
[sic]. Hence, imagination assimilates unlike things
to create a new unity. This unity would be constituted of living,
interdependent parts that could not function in a literary manner
independent from the organic form of the whole, an idea that
proved quite important to the New Critics of the early twentieth-century.
Many lesser critics of the
late 19th Century misunderstood Coleridge, and they used the
word fancy in reference to the process of producing a
light-hearted, simple, or fanciful poetry and reserve the term
imagination for more serious, passionate, or intense
poetry. However, for the original Romantic critics and poets,
the distinction in terminology marked two different types of
creativity. They valued imaginative creativity more than fanciful
creativity regardless of whether the poetry was serious or light-hearted.
LITERATURE: Any literature that is removed from
reality--especially poems, books, or short narratives
set in nonexistent worlds,
such as an elvish kingdom, on the moon, in Pellucidar (the
hollow center of the earth), or in alternative versions
of the historical
world--such as a version of London where vampires or sorcerers
have seized control of parliament. The characters are
something other than humans, or human characters may interact
with nonhuman characters such as trolls, dragons, munchkins,
kelpies, etc. Examples include J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, J. R. R. Tolkien's
synthetic histories in The Silmarilion, Michael Moorcock's
The Dreaming City, or the books in Stephen R. Donaldson's
series, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.
See also escapist
literature. Contrast with magic realism, science
fiction and speculative
NOVEL: Any novel that is removed from reality--especially
those novels set in nonexistent worlds, such as an elvish
on the moon, in Pellucidar (the hollow center of the earth),
or in alternative versions of the historical world--such
a version of London where vampires or sorcerers have seized
control of parliament. The characters are often something
than humans, or human characters may interact with nonhuman
characters such as trolls, dragons, munchkins, kelpies,
Examples include J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit,
Ursula LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea, Michael Moorcock's
The Dreaming City, or T. H. White's The Once
and Future King. See also escapist
literature. Contrast with magic
fiction and speculative
(from Latin Farsus, "stuffed"): A farce is
a form of low
designed to provoke laughter through highly exaggerated caricatures
of people in improbable or silly situations. Traits of farce
include (1) physical bustle such as slapstick,
(2) sexual misunderstandings and mix-ups, and (3)
broad verbal humor such as puns. Many literary critics (especially
in the Victorian period) have tended to view farce as inferior
to "high comedy" that involves brilliant dialogue. Many of Shakespeare's
early works, such as The Taming of the Shrew, are considered
farces. Contrast with comedy
A medieval Spanish religious play, usually performed in sets
rather than alone, with a comic
interlude between plays or between acts. An example is Lucas
Fernández's Farsas y eglogas al modo y estilo
pastoril y castellano (Cuddon 333). Farsa should not
be confused with fârsa, a type of boasting poem in the African
Galla tribe that recites a catalog of heroes and their deeds
"medley," or "rubbish"): Nonsense verse popular between 1200-1400
medieval France, usually in eleven-line verse form, often
text. Their purpose appears to be mocking traditional
BARGAIN: A temptation
motif from German folklore in which an individual
sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge, wealth,
or power. Marlowe's The Tragical Historie of Doctor Faustus
revolves around this motif.
AMIS (French, "false
friends"): (1) Words in two languages that might technically be
each other (i.e., descended down two separate etymological
branches to a common root word), but which
are not equivalent in meaning because one or both of
them have changed meaning over time from the original
root word. For instance, the Spanish word embarazar and
the English word embarrass look
like cognates, and in fact, the English term was borrowed
by way of French from the Spanish word. However, the
English word has changed meaning to refer to humiliation,
but in the original Spanish, the word embarazar means
"impregnate." Even though technically descended from
a common ancestor, and thus cognates, the two words are
faux amis if we try to translate them as equivalents.
(2) In a looser sense, faux amis can also refer to any false cognates in which two words look so similar morphologically they lure amateur linguists into believing they are related etymologically. Faux amis and false cognates are the bane of speakers learning a second language. Cf. cognate and false cognate under cognate discussion.
As Kathleen Scott describes this sort of decoration, it is "a
spray form of decoration, consisting of short, slightly curving
pen lines often ending in a lobe (after c. 1410 usually tinted
green), gold motifs, and coloured motifs; [. . .] a basic element
of 15th-century book decoration" (Scott 371).
ENDING / FEMININE RHYME: See under discussion of
WRITING: Writing concerned with the unique experience
of being a woman or alternatively writing designed to challenge
existing preconceptions of gender. Examples of feminist writings
include Christine de Pisan's medieval work, The City of
Ladies; Aemilia Lanyer's Renaissance treatise, Salve
Deus, Rex Judaeorum (which presented the then-shocking
idea that Adam was just as much to blame for the fall of man
as Eve was in the Genesis account); Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication,
and Susan B. Anthony's nineteenth-century essays (which presented
the equally shocking idea that women in America and Canada should
have the right to vote).
Many female students in
my class preface their discussions of feminist writings by stating,
"I'm not a feminist, but . . . ."
This tendency always puzzled me, since it implies that feminism
is something negative, radical, or always liberal. Worse yet,
it implies that it's bad for women to want crazy, misguided
things like education, equal health insurance, similar pay to
what men earn in similar professions, freedom from harassment,
and funding for medical problems concerning women, such as breast
and uterine cancer research, which are the primary concerns
of feminism. Somewhere toward the end of the twentieth-century,
detractors of such writers have caricatured these demands as
"man-hating" or "anti-family." As an antidote
to such thinking, keep in mind the broader definition: a feminist
is anyone who thinks that women are people too.
The medieval model of government predating the birth of the
modern nation-state. Feudal society is a military hierarchy
in which a ruler or lord offers mounted fighters a fief
(medieval Latin "beneficium"), a unit of
land to control in exchange for a military service. The individual
who accepted this land became a vassal; the man who granted
the land became known as the vassal's liege or his lord.
The deal was often sealed by swearing oaths on the Bible or
on the relics of saints. Often this military service amounted
to forty days' service each year in times of peace or indefinite
service in times of war, but the actual terms of service and
duties varied considerably on a case-by-case basis. For instance,
in the late medieval period, this military service was often
abandoned in preference for cash payment or an agreement to
provide a certain number of men-at-arms or mounted knights for
the lord's use.
In the late medieval period,
the fiefdom often became hereditary, and the firstborn son
a knight or lesser nobleman would inherit the land and the
military duties from his father upon the father's death.
two enormous effects on medieval society. (1) First, it discouraged
unified government because individual lords would divide
lands into smaller and smaller sections to give to lesser nobles
and knights. These lesser noblemen in turn would subdivide
own lands into even smaller fiefs to give to even less important
rulers and knights. Each knight would swear his oath of fealty
(loyalty) to the ones who gave him his lands, which was not
necessarily the king or higher noblemen, let alone an abstraction
like "France" or "England." Feudal government
was always an arrangement between individuals, not between
and citizens. (2) Second, it discouraged trade and economic
growth. Peasant farmers called serfs worked the fields;
they were tied to individual plots of land and forbidden to
move or change occupations without the permission of the lord.
The feudal lord might claim one-third to one-half of the serf's
produce in taxes and fees, and the serfs owed him a set number
each year in which they would work the lord's fields in exchange
for the right to work their own lands. Often, they were required
to grind their grain in the lord's mill and bake all their
in the lord's oven in exchange for other fees. In theory, the
male members of the community might be divided into bellatores
(the noblemen who fought), arratores or laboratores (the
agricultural laborers who grew the food), and oratores
(the clergy who prayed and attended to spiritual matters).
In contrast, women were divided into their states commonly by sexual or marital status as widows, virgins, or wives. Ultimately, this simple tripartite division known as the three
estates of feudalism proved unworkable by the 1300s, and the necessity
of skilled craftsmen, merchants, and other occupations was
visible in spite of the theoretical model espoused in some
sermons and political treatises.
LANGUAGE: A deviation from what speakers of a language understand
as the ordinary or standard use of words in order to achieve
some special meaning or effect. Perhaps the two most common
figurative devices are the simile--a
comparison between two distinctly different things using "like"
or "as" ("My love's like a red, red rose")--and the metaphor--a
figure of speech in which two unlike objects are implicitly
compared without the use of "like" or "as." These are both examples
of tropes. Any figure of speech that results in a change of
meaning is called a trope. Any figure of speech that
creates its effect in patterns of words or letters in a sentence,
rather than twisting the meaning of words, is called a scheme.
Perhaps the most common scheme is parallelism.
For a more complete list of schemes and tropes, see the schemes
and tropes pages.
FIGURE OF SPEECH:
A scheme or a trope
used for rhetorical or artistic effect. See figurative
FILI: A class of learned Irish poet in pre-Christian and early Christian Ireland. Legally, a fili had similar status to a Christian bishop, and in pagan times, the fili carried out some spells and divinations appropriate to the druids, the priestly class among the Celts.
A specialized type of folk music or alternative music, often
with narrative lyrics, that usually deals with science
fiction or fantasy themes and characters.
The subject-matter is often not original to the musician,
but rather taken from literature,
fiction, movies, and pop culture. In some cases,
the song retells a story written by a famous science fiction
author or explores in greater detail a particular scene or
character first created by that author. Because this subgenre
often is an homage to another's published work, it is usually
thus avoiding copyright infringements. An example might be
about Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek Enterprise set
"Jingle Bells," or a song about H.G. Wells' War
of the Worlds meant to be performed to the tune of Handel's
"Ode to Joy." Other filk songs might involve completely
original music, and they might deal with technological or
more generally rather than paying homage to a particular
science fiction story. Likewise, a single filk song
might make allusions to
several different works simultaneously. The only
prerequisite convention of
the genre is
that it be appealing to the people who frequent science
fiction conventions and
literature and movies.
Filk is often written by
amateur musicians or hobbyists.
traditionally perform the songs at science fiction conventions
late at night after other scheduled events have ended.
first began in the 1950s, though it never became
mid 1970s. The adjective/noun term filk comes
from a typo--a misspelling of "folk music" in Lee Jacobs'
Influence of Science Fiction on Modern American Filk [sic]
Music." The incorrect designation stuck and science
fiction authors like Poul Anderson and Robert Asprin helped
popularize the name through their friendly encouragement.
Back formation or linguistic functional
in the verb to filk, which implies both "to sing
or perform filk songs" and "to write songs about science
fiction subjects." Various annual science conventions
like the Ohio Valley Filk
and FilkOntario schedule regular filking events. Every
year, OVFF offers a Pegasus award for excellence
WORK (also called vinework or vinery): A common
type of decoration in medieval manuscripts. Scott defines it
in the following manner: "Delicate,
conventional designs, usually in gold, on a flat coloured surface,
in overall patterns of curling vines, branches, and sprigs and/or
leaves; used as a background to miniatures and initials and
on band borders and miniature frames" (Scott 371).
One of several language families outside the Indo-Euorpean
of languages. This family includes Hungarian, Estonian, Lappish,
(Septuagint Greek, stereoma "the beaten or hammered
thing," Latin firmamentum, "the solid thing"):
In Genesis, a mysterious substance described as "separating
the lower waters from the upper waters" before the separation
of dry land from the rest of the lower waters. In ancient cosmology,
the firmament was thought to be a semi-translucent dome or vault
of the sky. By medieval times, the theory arose that this firmament
was the first of several translucent spheres encompassing the
earth called the crystaline mobile. Extended discussion
can be found here.
FOLIO: A set of Shakespeare's plays published in 1623. The
"First Folio" included some thirty-six plays, and the editor
of this publication took some care in the selection and accuracy
of his texts, or at least more care than those editors who published
earlier quartos. See folio
LANGUAGE: The preferred or normal language a speaker
chooses to communicate in--i.e., one's native or fluent language.
Bilingual individuals might have more than one.
SOUND SHIFT: In Grimm's Law, the systematic transformation
of the Proto-Germanic Indo-European stop sounds.
(also spelled fitt, possibly from Old Norse fit, "a hem," or German
Fitze, "a skein of yarn or the thread used to mark
off a day's work"): A fit is a numbered division of a a
poem, much like a canto. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
is divided into four fits, and Chaucer's "Sir Thopas"
contains three fits. Lewis Caroll's The Hunting of the Snark
consists of eight fits. The practice of dividing a narrative
poem into fits has fallen into disuse in most modern poetry.
FITT: See fit, above.
FIVE WOUNDS OF CHRIST: Medieval writers typically describe Christ as suffering five wounds, though they vary somewhat in which wounds they number. The most common numbering system lists the nail wound in Christ's hands and feet as four wounds, with the spear-puncture in his side as the fifth wound. This model does not count the crown of thorns as a puncturing wound. Another rarer system numbers these as moments in which Christ bleeds, listing them as (1) Christ's circumcision or, alternatively, Christ's sweating of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, (2) the flogging at the hands of the Roman soldiers, (3) his being nailed to the cross, (4) the crown of thorns, and (5) the spear in his side. The Pearl Poet refers to the five wounds of Christ as numerologically significant as he expounds upon the pentangle on Sir Gawain's shield in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
term for closed-form poetry. See closed
A method of narration in which present action is temporarily
interrupted so that the reader can witness past events--usually
in the form of a character's memories, dreams, narration, or
even authorial commentary (such as saying, "But back when
King Arthur had been a child. . . ."). Flashback allows
an author to fill in the reader about a place or a character,
or it can be used to delay important details until just before
a dramatic moment.
CHARACTER: Also called a static
character, a flat character is a simplified character who
does not change or alter his or her personality over the course
of a narrative, or one without extensive personality and characterization.
The term is used in contrast with a round character. See character,
SIDE: In medieval manuscripts, this term refers to the side
of a leaf of parchment
that originally faced the internal organs of the animal, as
opposed to the hair
side, which was the side of the skin that faced
outward. Usually, the flesh side is whiter and softer than the
hair side. The two sides are usually distinguishable in continental
manuscripts, but it is often harder to distinguish them in insular
texts (texts from Britain), because the custom in the British
isles was to refrain from scraping the skins very deeply, so
that both sides retain a suedelike surface and sometimes a stiff,
cellulose character. See discussion of parchment,
In medieval times, this was a professional artist who works
in conjunction with illuminators and rubricators to design pen-work
decoration on initials and /or flourishwork on the borders of
decorated books. See flourishing,
In medieval codices, this refers to "Ornamentation
in pen-work, often red on a blue initial (but sometimes in lavender
and occasionally in green), by means of sweeping lines and loops
descending from patterns, often 'saw-tooth' at this period [1300
CE through 1499 CE], adjoining the letter" (Scott
A contest of wits and insults between two Germanic warriors.
Each tries to demonstrate his superior vocabulary, cleverness,
and bravery. The verbal rivalry between Unferth and Beowulf
in Beowulf is one such example in Anglo-Saxon literature.
Dutch literary theorist Mieke Bal coined the term focalization
to describe a shift in perspective that takes place in literature
when an author switches from one character's perspective to
another. She preferred the term focalization to the more traditional
phrase "point-of-view" because the term called attention
to the way a reader's focus shifts even as the point-of-view
shifts. The term has become widespread in the school of literary
theory known as narratology.
A character that serves by contrast to highlight or emphasize
opposing traits in another character. For instance, in the film
Chasing Amy, the character Silent Bob is a foil for his
partner, Jay, who is loquacious and foul-mouthed. In Shakespeare's
Hamlet, Laertes the unthinking man of action is a foil
to the intelligent but reluctant Hamlet. The angry hothead Hotspur
in Henry IV, Part I, is the foil to the cool and calculating
A term from the early production of paper and vellum
in the medieval period. When a single large sheet is folded
once and sewn to create two leaves, or four pages, and then
bound together, the resulting text is called a "folio." On a
single sheet, the page visible on the right-hand side of an
open book or the "top" side of such a page is called the recto
side (Latin for "right"), and the reverse or "bottom" side of
such a page (the page visible on the left-hand side of an open
book) is called the verso
side (click here to see
this visually). Folios are typically large books, twice the
size of a quarto and four times the size of an octavo printing.
Compare folio with quarto
ETYMOLOGY: An incorrect but popular explanation for
the origins of a word. For instance, popular folk etymology
states that the word posh is an acronym
for "Port Outbound, Starboard Homebound"--the part
of a luxury liner with the best view on either journey on a
particular sealiner. In actual fact, the term posh
predates the formation of the company supposed to have invented
FOLKLORE: Sayings, verbal compositions, stories,
and social rituals passed along by word of mouth rather than
written down in a text. Folklore includes superstitions; modern
"urban legends"; proverbs; riddles;
spells; nursery rhymes; songs; legends or lore about the weather,
animals, and plants; jokes and anecdotes;
rituals at births, deaths, marriages, and yearly celebrations;
and traditional dance and plays performed during holidays or
at communal gatherings. Many works of literature originated
before the narratives were written down. Examples in American
culture include the story of George Washington chopping down
the cherry tree; George Washington throwing a silver dollar
across the Potomac river; Paul Bunyon cutting lumber with his
blue ox, Babe; Pecos Bill roping a twister; and Johnny Appleseed
planting apples across the west over a 120-year period. Many
in Europe originate in folklore, such as "Snow White" and "Jack
and the Beanstalk." In modern days, much academic work with
folklore focuses on reports of UFO abductions, the Chupacabra
[goat-chewing monster] legends of Mexico, urban legends, and
outbreaks of public hysteria regarding nonexistent mass ritualized
child-abuse and cannibalism. Contrast with mythology.
See also folkloric
motifs and folktales.
MOTIFS: Recurring patterns of imagery or narrative that
appear in folklore
and folktales. Common folkloric motifs include the wise
old man mentoring the young warrior, the handsome prince rescuing
the damsel in distress, the "bed
trick," and the "trickster tricked." Others include
games," "the exchange of winnings,"
and the loathly
lady who transforms into a beautiful maiden (all
common in Celtic folklore). These folkloric motifs appear in
tales, in mythology,
in archetypal stories (see archetype),
and in some of Shakespeare's plays.
Folktales are stories passed along from one generation to the
next by word-of-mouth rather than by a written text. See further
discussion under folklore.
Originally a jester-at-court who would entertain the king and
nobles, the court jester was often a dwarf or a mentally incompetent
individual. His role was to amuse others with his physical or
mental incapacity. (While this may sound cruel to a modern reader,
the practice also constituted a sort of medieval social security
for such individuals who would otherwise be left to starve;
a fool at court would at least be assured of food, shelter,
and clothing.) In later centuries, the court fool was often
a professional entertainer who would juggle, tell jokes, and
generally amuse the king and his guests with keen wit. Such
performers were often given an unparalleled degree of freedom
in their speech. As long as they spoke their words in rhyme
or riddle, the fool theoretically had the freedom to criticize
individuals and mock political policy. In Shakespearean drama,
the fool becomes a central character due to this immunity. The
fool is also sometimes referred to as the clown,
though "clown" can refer to any bumpkin or rural person
in Elizabethan usage (see clown
A basic unit of meter consisting of a set number of strong stresses
and light stresses. See meter.
Suggesting, hinting, indicating, or showing what will occur
later in a narrative. Foreshadowing often provides hints about
what will happen next. For instance, a movie director might
show a clip in which two parents discuss their son's leukemia.
The camera briefly changes shots to do an extended close-up
of a dying plant in the garden outside, or one of the parents
might mention that another relative died on the same date. The
perceptive audience sees the dying plant, or hears the reference
to the date of death, and realizes this detail foreshadows the
child's death later in the movie. Often this foreshadowing takes
the form of a noteworthy coincidence or appears in a verbal
echo of dialogue. Other examples of foreshadowing include the
conversation and action of the three witches in Shakespeare's
Macbeth, or the various prophecies that Oedipus hears
during Oedipus Rex.
The part of the stage "in front" or closest to the
The "shape" or organizational mode of a particular
poem. In most poems (like sonnets), the form consists of a set
number of lines, a set rhyme scheme, and a set meter for each
line. In concrete
poetry, the form of a poem may reflect the theme, topic,
or idea of the words in the actual shape of the text on a piece
of paper. In the free
verse or open-form poetry common to the modernist
and postmodernist movements, the rigid constraints of form are
often discarded in order to achieve a variety of effects.
An Old Norse Eddic metrical form
with four-line stanzas in which a caesura splits
each line. Each half-line has two accented syllables and
either two or three unstressed syllables. Most of the Eddas
are written in this structure.
Informal, ironic, relaxed, and resembling the style, attitude,
or tone found in
E. M. Forster's writings.
PAPERS: Rough drafts of a manuscript that have not been
corrected and are not to be sent to the printers. They are typically
full of blotted out passages and scribbled revisions. Some of
Shakespeare's surviving manuscript variants theoretically might
be the result of the difference between his foul papers and
(see above). Unfortunately, no definite sample of Shakespeare's
foul papers actually survive to the present day except a possible
in the play Sir Thomas Moore.
FOUR ELEMENTS: See
INTERPRETATION: In the twelfth century, fourfold interpretation
was a model for reading biblical texts according to one of four
possible levels of meaning. The idea had a profound influence
on exegesis and theology, but its principles also influenced
medieval literature and medieval writers. Dante (c. 1300), for
instance, claimed that his writings can be interpreted according
to four possible levels of meaning (The Divine Comedy
being the classic example). The text can be read as (1) a literally
or historically true and factual account of events (2) an allegorical
text revealing spiritual or typological
truths, (3) a tropological
lesson that makes a moral point, or (4) an anagogical
text predicting eschatological
events in the last days or revealing truths about the afterlife.
Often medieval interpreters saw a single passage or verse as
operating on multiple levels simultaneously. For instance, consider
the following Biblical excerpt:
they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks, and broke
it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, "Take and eat;
this is my body" [Matthew 26:26].
Here, when Christ takes
the piece of bread and offers it to his disciples, many readers
would argue we cannot read his words literally. (Christ
is not saying, "I am literally a piece of bread" or
"My body is made up of bread," or even "Engage
in cannibalism by eating my body while I hand you this piece
of bread.") The statement is not meant to be understood
that way, according to many theologians and exegetes, but rather
it is symbolic in meaning. The passage symbolically indicates
events yet to come, a prefiguration of both (1) Christ's crucifixion,
in which his body would be broken and torn upon the cross, and
(2) the coming ritual of Eucharist, in which the disciples will
eat communion bread in commemoration of that sacrifice.
Oddly enough, this idea
that Biblical literature can be read on multiple levels often
unsettles some Christians who argue that every word is meant
to be taken literally in the Bible. I personally suspect that,
when people make such claims, they do not understand what the
word literal means (either that, or they haven't read
the Bible very astutely). They themselves do not interpret the
Bible in such a manner, for they do not believe that the story
of the Good Samaritan is literally a mere historical
account about a person living in Samaria, but they readily interpret
the passage tropologically as a hypothetical lesson Christ presents
concerning neighborly behavior and Christian charity. Nor do
they think that the Beast with seven heads and ten crowns in
the book of Revelation will literally rise from the sea to ravage
the land like some gigantic hydra-headed mutant Godzilla, but
instead they typically read the beast as an eschatalogical symbol
of a human Antichrist yet to come who will dominate the world.
Neither do they read Psalm 46:1, "A mighty fortress is
our God, an ever present bulwark in time of trouble," as
a claim that God is literally a military installation or building.
They (like most intelligent readers) intuitively know sometimes
to make the leap from the literal meaning to the level of figurative,
symbolic, or metaphorical meaning. They just don't admit that
they are doing so--claiming they simply read every word in the
holy text as literal statement.
On the other hand, many
of the schisms
in Church history result from the tricky question of when to
make the jump from literal to allegorical interpretation. The
for instance, originates in the Catholic church's literal reading
of Matthew 16:17-19 and John 21:15-17. Protestant branches of
Christianity do not tend to read the passage literally as an
indication that Saint Peter and his papal successors have special
authority over spiritual matters and the church. The Catholic
doctrine of transubstantiation (the idea that communion
wafers and communion wine literally turn into the blood and
body of Christ on the level of substancia while remaining
unchanged in incidentals like appearance and taste) is another
example in which the Catholic decision to read literally such
scripture contrasts with Wycliffite doctrines of consubstantiation,
in which the bread and wine remain materially bread and wine,
but only symbolically or spiritually become the body and blood
of Christ, or real presence--the doctrine that
the essence of God permeates the bread and wine while leaving
it physically unchanged. Other differences between Protestant
sects originate in the same question. Should Christians interpret
literally those passages in Corinthians and Timothy in which
women are forbidden to have their hair uncovered in public,
speak aloud in churches, or hold teaching jobs or positions
of authority over males? Few modern Christians would, given
the contextual evidence, but some denominations do read the
passages literally and thus forbid women to be pastors or Sunday
School teachers, or even to hold managerial positions in businesses,
for instance. The question becomes at what point one should
set aside a particular level of fourfold interpretation in favor
In the same way, fourfold
interpretation of medieval literature is equally tricky. Among
medieval scholars, the term "Robertsonian"
is often used in reference to critics who seek to apply exegetical
principles of interpretation to secular texts--especially typological
readings. (The name "Robertsonian"comes
from an American scholar, D. W. Robertson, who is
the most outspoken and well-known of such critics in the last
half of the twentieth-century.) Other critics hotly contest
such readings of literary text, especially when the literal
subject-matter seems greatly at odds with the exegetical material.
MEANING: Another term for fourfold interpretation, this
word refers to the medieval idea that every passage in the Bible
can be interpreted according to at least one of four possible
levels of meaning. The text can be read as (1) a literally
or historically true account of events (2) an allegorical
text revealing spiritual or typological
truths, (3) a tropological
lesson that makes a moral point, and (4) an anagogical
text predicting eschatological
events in the last days or revealing truths about the afterlife.
See discussion under fourfold
WALL: Sometimes referred to as the "third wall,"
depending upon how a stagebuilder numbers the sides of the stage,
the fourth wall is an imaginary wall that separates the events
on stage from the audience. The idea is that the stage is constructed
with a cutaway view of the house, so that the people sitting
on the audience can look through this invisible "fourth
wall" and look directly into the events inside. Such stages
in the round (see below), and they require a modified
set up in with an expensive reproduction of an entire house
or building, often complete with stairs, wallpaper, furniture,
and other bits to add verisimilitude. This type of stage became
increasingly common within the last two centuries, but the money
involved in constructing such stages often precludes their use
in drama, leaving arena
stages fairly popular.
An incomplete piece of literature--one the author never finished
entirely--such as Coleridge's "Kubla Khan"--or one
in which part of the manuscript has been lost due to damage
or neglect--such as the Finnesburgh Fragment or "The Battle
of Maldon." Chaucerian scholars also use the term fragment
to describe the individual sections of the Canterbury Tales
in which the various tales have links
to each other internally but lack links to the other sections
of the Canterbury Tales so that scholars cannot reassemble
them all into a single cohesive text. At the time of Chaucer's
death, he left behind ten fragments that can be organized in
various ways to make a larger narrative. These fragments are
bits of narrative linked together by internal signs such as
pieces of conversation or passages referring to an earlier story
or the story about to come next. The fragments are usually designated
with Roman numerals (I-X) in modern
editions of the text, but the Chaucer Society uses alphabetical
designations to refer to these fragments (i.e., Fragments
A-I). Only between Fragments IX-X
and (in the case of the Ellesmere family) between Fragments
IV-V do we find explicit indication of an order. Consequently,
modern editors differ in the order the tales are presented.
Click here to download
a PDF handout discussing the order of these fragments and
the controversial Bradshaw
NARRATIVE: The result of inserting one or more small stories
within the body of a larger story that encompasses the smaller
ones. Often this term is used interchangeably with both the
literary technique and the larger story itself that contains
the smaller ones, which are called pericopes,
"framed narratives" or "embedded narratives."
The most famous example is Chaucer's
Canterbury Tales, in which the overarching frame narrative
is the story of a band of pilgrims traveling to the shrine of
Thomas a Becket in Canterbury. The band passes the time in a
storytelling contest. The framed narratives are the individual
stories told by the pilgrims who participate. Another example
is Boccaccio's Decameron, in which the frame narrative
consists of a group of Italian noblemen and women fleeing the
plague, and the framed narratives consist of the tales they
tell each other to pass the time while they await the disease's
passing. The 1001 Arabian Nights is probably the most
famous Middle Eastern frame narrative. Here, in Bagdad, Scheherazade
must delay her execution by beguiling her Caliph with a series
STORY: See frame
METHOD: Using the same features, wording, setting, situation,
or topic at both the beginning and end of a literary work so
as to "frame" it or "enclose it." This technique
often provides a sense of cyclical completeness or closure.
MOTIF: A motif in
which a created being turns upon its creator in what
seems to be an inevitable fashion. The term
comes from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a nineteenth-century
novel in which Victor Frankenstein stiches together the body
parts of condemned criminals and then reanimates the resulting
patchwork creature using electricity. However, the motif itself
dates back much earlier to medieval legends of the Golem, an
animated clay figure controlled by Hebrew kabbalists. The
motif warns against hubris in human creators. This admonishment
occasionally appears in thoughtful science fiction exploring
the ethical responsibility of creating new life, but it even
more frequently appears in anti-intellectual diatribes against
knowledge "mankind was not meant to know."
In the later case, the Frankenstein motif expresses general
anxieties about the rapidity of technological change. Examples
of the Frankenstein motif appear in H. G. Wells' The Island
of Doctor Moreau, Crichton's Jurassic Park,
and Greg Bear's novella Blood
A medieval profession akin to a cross between a landlord and
a real estate agent. In the early medieval political system
society was divided theoretically into three
estates: (1) knights and the nobility, (2) the
clergy, and (3) agricultural laborers known as serfs. This unrealistically
simple tripartite division gave way to increasing complexity
in later centuries. The growth of craftsmen guilds,
the increasing number of yeoman, the development of town charters
and metropolitan life, and labor shortages caused by the Black
Death--these all contributed to the demise of the pure feudal
system. Scarcity of labor forced noblemen to pay their laborers,
and the aristocrats became increasingly strapped for cash to
support their lavish lifestyles. The only wealth they possessed
was land, so an increasing number of them began selling land
for cash. The nouveau riche members of the bourgeoisie,
rich merchants in silk, wool, wine and other goods, seized upon
this opportunity to buy large swathes of land from ever more
impoverished nobility, which they in turn rented out to other
freemen. The new landowner, the franklin, was usually snubbed
as parvenu by the typical aristocrat, especially since
the franklins were famous for dressing up like noblemen and
putting on aristocratic airs in spite of the sumptuary
laws against such dress. The reputation for being social
climbers was perhaps well deserved, given that many of these
new landowners attempted to "buy" their way into aristocratic
ranks by marrying their sons and daughters into the ranks of
nobility in return for cash payments. Probably the most famous
franklin in literary history is Chaucer's Franklin, whose lavish
displays of generosity in the General Prologue are only matched
by his blatant attempts to flatter the Knight (through complimenting
the Knight's son, the Squire) and his attempt to redefine the
qualities of nobility later in the Canterbury Tales.
A style of third-person narration that mingles within it
traits from first-person narration, often shifting pronouns,
adverbs, tense, and grammatical mode. The term comes from
the French "style indirect libre," and
Flaubert's use of this technique in French literature strongly
English-speaking authors like James Joyce. M. H.
Abrams provides a hypothetical example for illustrative
in A Glossary of Literary Terms:
a direct, "He thought, 'I will see her home now, and may
then stop at my mother's," might shift, in an indirect
representation, to: "He would see her home then, and might
afterward stop at his mother's" (Abrams 169).
Though most scholars of
nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature emphasize Flaubert's
contribution, the technique does predate him. Chaucer himself
uses it in the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales,
where the narrator Geoffrey describes the Monk's attitude
[I (A) 183-88], and moves from direct quotation of dialogue
into a paraphrased list of the Monk's main arguments presented
as if the narrator were the one speaking.
METER: Not to be confused with free
verse, free meter refers to a type of Welsh poetry
in which the meters do not correspond to the "strict meters" established
in the 1400s. Cf. free
FREE MORPHEME: Any morpheme
that can function by itself as a word, such as the two morphemes
it and self found in the word itself.
This is the opposite of a bound
morpheme, one that only makes sense when it is
part of a larger word--such as the bound morpheme ept
in the word inept, or the morpheme gruntle
in the word disgruntled.
VARIATION: A sound substitution that does not hinder
understanding or meaning--such as pronouncing the first syllable
of either with an /I/ or
VERSE: Poetry based on the natural rhythms of phrases and
normal pauses rather than the artificial constraints of metrical
feet. Commonly called vers libre in French (the English
term first appears in print in 1908), this poetry often involves
the counterpoint of stressed and unstressed syllables in unpredictable
but clever ways. Its origins are obscure. Early poetry that
is similar to free verse includes the Authorized Bible translations
of the Psalms and the Song of Songs; Milton clearly
experimented with something like free verse in Lycidas
and Samson Agonistes as well. However the Enlightenment's
later emphasis on perfect meter during the 1700s prevented this
experimentation from developing much further during the 18th
century. The American poet Walt Whitman first made extended
successful use of free verse in the 19th century, and he in
turn influenced Baudelaire, who developed the technique in French
poetry. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we find several
poets using some variant of free verse--including Ezra Pound,
T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, William Carlos Williams,
and e. e. cummings. Do note that, within individual
sections of a free verse poem, a specific line or lines may
fall into metrical regularity. The distinction is that this
meter is not sustained through the bulk of the poem. For instance,
consider this excerpt from Amy Lowell's "Patterns":
Up and down,
In my gown.
Boned and stayed.
And the softness of my body will be guarded from embrace
By every button, hook, and lace.
For the man who should loose me is dead,
Fighting with the Duke in Flanders,
In a pattern called a war.
Christ! What are patterns for?
Here, we find examples of
rhythmical regularity such as the near-anapestic meter in one
line ("and the SOFTness of my BOdy, will be GUARDed from
em BRACE"). However, the poet deviates from this regularity
in other lines, which often vary wildly in length--in some passages
approaching a prose-like quality.
SCENE: A numbering system for a play in which a new scene
is numbered whenever characters exit or enter the stage. Cf.
CRITICISM: A psychoanalytical approach to literature
that seeks to understand the elements of a story or character
in a story by applying the tripartite model of the psyche developed
by the late nineteenth-century psychologist, Sigmund Freud.
In Freud's thinking, the mind was divided into three components:
(conscious mind and sense of self, from the Latin word for
(a subconscious collection of inhibitions, guilty feelings,
and anxieties superimposed on the mind by half-forgotten
parental punishments, social rebukes, instilled ethics and
the necessary conventions of civilized behavior)
(a mindless, self-destructive tangle of instinctive unverbalized
desires and physical appetites, from Latin "it")
Closely linked to this
tripartite division were concepts such as wish
fulfillment, the Freudian
slip, the Oedipal
complex, and thanatos
(the death wish).
SLIP: A slip of the tongue in which a person means
to say one thing, but accidentally substitutes another word
or phrase in a suggestive or revealing manner. For instance,
suppose a young man were attracted to the physical features
of a young woman. He tries to make nonchalant small-talk about
the cold weather rather than gawk at her breasts. He means to
say, "Awful nippy out, isn't it?" He actually
states, "Awful nipply out, isn't it?" This
error is a Freudian slip in which his subconscious desires have
revealed themselves through verbal errors.
PYRAMID: A diagram of dramatic
structure, one which shows complication and emotional tension
rising like one side of a pyramid toward its apex, which represents
of action. Once the climax is over, the descending side of the
pyramid depicts the decrease in tension and complication as
the drama reaches its conclusion and denouement.
A sample chart is available to view.
Freytag designed the chart for discussing tragedy,
but it can be applied to many kinds of fiction.
TRIANGLE: Another term for Freytag's
Pyramid (see above).
(also called spirant): In linguistics, any
sound made by tightening but not completely closing the air
SCENAE: At the back of the stage, this wall faced
the audience and blocked the view of the players' tiring-house.
In Shakespeare's heydey, the Globe Theater had two doors flanking
the central discovery
space with a gallery above (see Greenblatt 1139).
VOWEL: In linguistics, a
vowel made with the ridge of the tongue located near the front
of the oral cavity.
POETRY: Flowery, irregular "prose-poem" form of
Chinese literature common during the Han period. It was first
perfected around the year 100 BCE, and it became increasingly
common thereafter. Cf. shih
RHYME: Another term for perfect rhyme, true rhyme, or exact
rhyme, see above.
SHIFT: The linguistic equivalent of poetic anthimeria,
in which one part of grammatical speech becomes another. An
especially common type of functional shift in everyday grammar
is taking a noun and treating it as an adjective. For instance,
we might take the noun clay and use it to modify another
noun like statue, resulting in a clay statue.
Functional shift has been a rich source of new word usages in
English--especially in the Renaissance; however, many traditionalists
today frown on function shifts, insisting dialogue
and e-mail are nouns but not verbs, and so on.
WORD: A part of speech--usually abstract and existing
in a limited number of examples--which marks grammatical structure
rather than referring to something concrete. Examples include
prepositions, articles, and conjunctions.
The runic alphabet used by the Norse and other Germanic tribes.
The Anglo-Saxon letters ash, thorn, wynn,
and edh (or -eth) used in early medieval England
were borrowed from futhorc. Click
here for more information.
FUTURISM: As Harkins describes it, a modernist poetic movement begun in Italy under Marinetti's tutelage in 1910, later spreading to Russia under the leadership of Velemir Khlebnikov. The Russian Futurism movement reacted against the mysticism and aetheticism of the symbolism movement. The Russian Futurists sought to shock the audience at any cost, to scrap the "stifling" cultural tradition of Russia's past, and to reinvent Russian vocabulary through neologisms (127).
TOP OF THIS PAGE
I consulted the following works
while preparing this list. I have tried to give credit to specific sources when
feasible, but in many cases multiple reference works use the same examples or
provide the same dates for common information. Students should examine these
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Algeo, John and Thomas Pyles.
The Origin and Development of the English Language. 5th edition.
Baugh, A. C. and Thomas
Cable. A History of the English Language. 5th edition. Englewood
Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 2002.
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
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Catholic University of America
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Corbett, Edward P. J. Classical
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Cuddon, J. A. The
Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. London: Penguin
Damrosch, David, gen. ed. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 2nd Compact Edition. Volume A. New York: Pearson, 2004. 3 Vols.
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
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Duffy, Seán. Medieval
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Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P,
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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:
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