Terms and Definitions: M
This page is under perpetual
construction! It was last updated 14 March, 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
"Four Branches"): The four branches or four parts of The
Mabinogion, a medieval collection of Welsh myths and
legends important in Celtic studies generally and in Arthurian
legends more specifically.
As an adjective, the word refers generally to sneaky, ruthless,
and deceitful behavior, especially in regard to a ruler obsessed
with power who puts on a surface veneer of honor and trustworthy
behavior in order to achieve evil ends. The term originates
in a treatise known as The Prince. This work was written
by Niccoló Machiavelli, an early sixteenth-century
political advisor who worked for the Borgia family in Italy.
In contrast to the medieval ideal of the ruler as God's holy
deputy and dispenser of justice, Machiavelli stressed that
rulers often must engage in evil (or at least immoral) activities
to ensure the stability of their rule. He suggests that,
on the evidence of history and his own personal observations,
the rulers that have remained in power have not been kindly,
benevolent men concerned with justice and fairness, but rather
ruthless individuals willing to do anything to ensure the
of their state and their own personal power. Click
here for more information.
(also spelled machiavel): A villain, especially an Italian
aristocratic power-monger, or a deceitful betrayer, who behaves
according to the principles established by Niccoló Machiavelli.
above.) The machievelle became a stock character in many
plays associated with sinister plots, blackest betrayal, and
wicked resourcefulness. Examples from Shakespeare include
of Gloucester in Richard III and Edmund and Cornwall
in King Lear.
TEXT: Any medieval or modern manuscript
written in a jumble of several languages--say a mixture of
or Latin and German--is said to be macaronic. The mixture might
involve bilingual vocabulary and grammatical switches within
a single sentence, or in alternating lines or paragraphs, or
in purely random intervals. Examples from the Restoration
period would be the steamier scenes of Samuel Pepys' diary
entries for 1666-1668,
Pepys frequently mingles Spanish and Latin words in the text
of his sexual indiscretions. Cf. code-switching.
The natural universe as a whole, including the biological realms
of flora and fauna, weather, and celestial objects such as the
sun, moon, and stars. See discussion under chain
MACROLOGIA (Grk. "big language" or "long language"): Also called macrology, in rhetoric, a negative term for a type of periphrasis involving unnecessary repetition of lengthy clauses. See discussion under periphrasis.
A diacritical mark in the form of a horizontal line indicating
the vowel beneath it is long.
Also known as bacchae or thyiads,
maenads were female worshippers of Dionysus or
Bacchus. In the mystery cult of
worshippers would get drunk on wine and then undergo an all-night
process of stylized frenzied dancing in order to achieve
the divine state of ekstasos.
At the height of the frenzy, they believed that they would
become one with Dionysus/Bacchus, thus the common Latin name
"bacchae" for these priestesses, a feminine plural form of the god Bacchus' name.
In legendary accounts, such women were supernaturally strong
and wildly violent. They would run through the forest naked
after the ceremonies and would catch small animals (or in
some myths men and children!), rip them apart bare-handed,
and then eat the flesh raw. In literature, Euripides' tragedy The
Bacchae is a dramatic retelling of
the arrival of the Dionysiac rites in Greece.
REALISM: In 1925, Franz Roh
first applied the term "magic realism" (magischer
Realismus in German) to a group of neue Saqchlichkeit painters
in Munich (Cuddon 531).
These painters blended realistic, smoothly painted, sharply
defined figures and objects--but in a surrealistic setting
or backdrop, giving them an outlandish, odd, or even dream-like
qualilty. In the 1940s and 1950s, the term migrated to the
prose fiction of various
Gabriel Garcia Márquez in Colombia, and Alejo Carpentier
in Cuba. The influence also spread later to Günter Grass
in Germany and John Fowles in England
135). These postmodern writers mingle and juxtapose realistic
events with fantastic ones, or they experiment with shifts
in time and setting, "labyrinthine narratives and plots" and "arcane
erudition" (135), and often they combine myths and fairy
stories with gritty Hemingway-esque detail. This mixture create
truly dreamlike and bizarre effects in their prose.
An example of magic realism
(and one of my own personal favorites in postmodern narrative)
would be Gabriel Garcia Márquez's short
story, "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings," a narrative
a fisherman discovers a filthy, lice-ridden old man
trapped face-down in the muddy shore of the beach, weighed
buzzard wings attached to his back. A neighbor identifies
the old man as an angel who had come down to claim
the fisherman's sick and feverish
but who had been knocked out the sky by storm winds during
the previous night. Not having the heart to club the sickly
angel to death, the protagonist decides
instead to keep the supernatural being captive in a chicken
coop. The very premise of the story reveals much of the flavor
of magic realism. Cf. postmodernism.
MAJUSCULE: A large letter
or a capital letter as opposed to minuscule.
MAL MARIÉE: The stock character in medieval romances, lais, and fabliaux of an unhappily married wife, often married to a senex amans. An example is the female protagonist in Marie de France's Laustic.
Misusing words to create a comic effect or characterize
speaker as being too confused, ignorant, or flustered to use
correct diction. Typically, the malapropism involves the
of two polysyllabic words that sound somewhat similar but have
different meanings. For instance, a stereotyped black maid
Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan of the Apes series cries
out as she falls into the jungle river, "I sho' nuff don't
want to be eaten by no river allegories, no sir!" Dogberry
the Watchman in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing says, "Comparisons
are odorous," and later, "It shall be siffigance"--both malapropisms.
In Sheridan, we find pineapple instead of pinnacle,
and we read in Twain's Huckleberry Finn how one
character declares, "I was most putrified with astonishment"
and so on. The best malapropisms sound
sufficiently similar to
the correct word to let the audience recognize the
intended meaning and laugh at the incongruous result. Cf. acyron.
Another term for Austronesian.
MANET / MANENT:
Common Latin stage
directions found in the margins of Shakespearean
plays. Manet is the singular for "He [or she]
remains." Manent is the plural form for multiple individuals.
Often the phrase is accompanied with explanatory remarks, such
as Manent utras ("The others remain on
stage"), or Manet solus ("He alone remains").
OF ARTICULATION: In linguistics, how the speech organs
of lips, tongue, and vocal cords must be arranged in order to
produce a particular sound such as a nasal, a stop, a fricative,
or so on.
A text written by hand, as opposed to one printed with a printing
press. (Manus is Latin for "hand"; scriptum is
a Latin participle for "written.") Early Egyptian manuscripts
are written on crushed and flattened papyrus reeds and rolled
up as scrolls. Later, parchment
and vellum (animal
skins) became the primary means of transmitting texts. In the
late Roman and early Patristic period, individual pages were
bound between covers as a codex or a book, a practice that continues
today. Paper as we know it became common in the Middle East
in the twelfth century, but it took another three hundred years
for the art of paper-making to spread through Europe. By Shakespeare's
day, printed paper had largely replaced manuscripts written
on vellum, but the mechanics of printing often tried to imitate
the familiar features of manuscripts. In medieval scholarship,
the abbreviation "MS" stands for manuscript, and British
scholars often use the plural form "MSS" for manuscripts.
"TS" and "TSS"are the equivalent terms for
typeset documents. Some important medieval literary manuscripts
include the Ellesmere,
and the Nowell
Codex. You can click here to see the first
page of Beowulf from the Nowell Codex. See also parchment,
side, and flesh
Arabic stories in rhymed prose. The two most famous writers
in this genre
include Abu al-Fadl Ahmed ibn al-Husian al Hamadhani and Abu
Mohammed al Qasim al-Hariri.
A technical German word used in folklore scholarship to refer
to fairy tales. See discussion under fairy
Drawings, notation, illumination, and doodles appearing in the
margins of a medieval text, rather than the central text itself.
WORD: A word that has some limitation or boundary in
its meaning when contrasted with an unmarked word
without such a limitation or boundary. Algeo points to the example
of stallion (marked for male gender) and mare
(marked for female gender) in contrast with the word horse,
which is unmarked for gender (323).
GROUP: A term coined by George L. Kittredge in 1912 to describe
a specific set of stories in Chaucer's
Canterbury Tales. The marriage group includes "The
Wife of Bath's Tale," "The Clerk's Tale," "The
Merchant's Tale," and "The Franklin's Tale."
All four narratives deal with the question of the proper relationship
between men and women in marriage. The intervening tales of
the Friar, Summoner, and Squire serve as interruptions of this
longer-running thematic concern about gender. Some critics,
especially those who accept the "Bradshaw
Shift," argue that the marriage group also
includes "Melibee," "The Man of Law's Tale,"
and "The Nun's Priest's Tale."
MARY SUE: A character beloved by the author but often despised by readers and editors--an unrealistic character with overly idealized behavior who lacks any perceivable flaws--especially one serving as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author. This term is an eponym from a character in Paula Smith's 1973 parody, "A Trekkie's Tale," and in subsequent decades became popular among editors in science-fiction publishing houses to refer to poorly written, annoying, and unlikely characters written by amateur authors.
ENDING / MASCULINE RHYME: Rhymes that end with a heavy
stress on the last syllable in each rhyming word. See under
discussion of meter.
meshalim): In the Hebrew tradition,
a mashal is
a broad, general term including almost any type of figurative
from short riddles to long, extended allegories. It denotes
"mysterious speech." Some of the Psalms, for instance,
are designated as meshalim.
The New Testament Greek often translates the term as parabole or
This translation, however, causes some problem. In Greek,
parabole are always allegorical and open to point-by-point
interpretation. Parabole were often used as a simple
method of teaching by example or analogy.
The meshalim in
Hebrew, however, was often intentionally confusing or deliberately
obfuscating in nature--much more like the Greek enigma (riddle).
We can see this confusion in the New Testament, where Mark
as Hebrew meshalim. In Mark, Jesus tells his disciples:
secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to
those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,
'they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing
but never understanding; otherwise, they might turn and be
forgiven'" (Mark 4:11-12). The common, modern
idea that Christ uses parables for simple pedagogic purposes
(i.e., "so that
even a child could understand the secrets of heaven")
is a creation of the medieval period, much later.
Hebrew Masorah, "handed
over"): The Masoretic texts are partly Hebrew and partly
of the Hebrew Bible (i.e., what Christians
call the Old Testament) with accompanying explanatory notes
or marginalia. A group of Jewish scholars known as the Masoretes
approved them for general use in Judaic biblical scholarship
and reading between the first and ninth centuries CE with
few late additions in the tenth century. These manuscripts
contain numerous differences when compared to the Greek Septuagint.
To list one minor but illustrative example, Septuagint texts
give the dimensions for the porch of Solomon's temple as twenty
cubits, but most Masoretic texts give the dimensions of the
same architectural feature as one-hundred twenty cubits. Other
differences range from the trivial to the striking. For linguists
and biblical scholars, Masoretic texts are especially important
because the Masoretes who wrote them introduced the Hebrew
convention of using dots and symbols under, above, and inside
consonant letters to represent vowel sounds. Previous Hebrew
texts only marked consonant sounds, which left the meaning
of many words ambiguous and rendered it difficult to verify
comparative studies showing how similar or different Hebrew
was from closely related languages such
Akkhadian, Amorite, Arabic,
Proto-Canaanite (which developed into both Phoenician and
Classical Hebrew), Eblaite and Elamite.
Not to be confused with a masquerade, a masque is a type of
elaborate court entertainment popular in the times of Queen
Elizabeth I, King James I, and Charles I--i.e., the early 17th Century after Queen Elizabeth's death. The masque as a performance grew out of medieval plays, but it was more spectacle than drama proper. The content was suitable for amateur actors rather than professional performers. The masques tended to use long speeches and little action. They combined
poetic drama, singing, dancing, music, and splendid costumes
and settings. The imagery was influential on later poets and poems, such as Andrew Marvell, who makes use of masque-imagery in "Upon Appleton House."
A proverb, a short, pithy statement or aphorism believed to
contain wisdom or insight into human nature. In much of the
dialogue in Viking sagas, for instance, the characters will
quote short maxims to each other to make a point.
HALL: A structure built by an Anglo-Saxon lord (hlaford
or cyning) as a social center for his immediate community,
especially his thegns
and warriors. Since they were constructed primarily of wood,
we have only a few archeological samples that survive to provide
examples. We know from descriptions in Anglo-Saxon texts that
they were filled with mead-benches, which were elaborately carved
and decorated with gold. Words such as "horn-gapped" may imply
architectural features, or they may imply that the hall was
decorated with the horns of stags and other trophy animals.
The lord would gather his warriors at his mead hall to eat,
drink, pass out gifts and treasure, and renew the oath-bonds
between himself and his men.
(from Latin medium aevum, "the Middle Age"
or "the in-between age"): The period of time roughly
a thousand years long between the fall of the Roman Empire
the emergence of the Renaissance. Actual starting and ending
points are somewhat arbitrary when describing the era, and
vary wildly in the dates they assign. For instance, M. H.
Abrams' Norton Anthology of English Literature, 7th
edition, assigns to the medieval period the years 450-1485,
but in his Glossary of Literary Terms, the same scholar
points to the years 410-1500 as the appropriate years. J. A.
Cuddon's Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary
Theory prefers the dates c. 800-c. 1450, and Harry
Shaw's Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms prefers
c. 476-c. 1350, but notes that it "may extend to
about 1500" (p. 170). While there are no universally
accepted demarcations, it is common in older European
histories to divide
the medieval period into an early period of "the Dark
and a later period of "the High Middle Ages." On
the other hand, linguists divide the medieval period in England
into the Anglo-Saxon period (about 450-1066) and the Middle
English period (about 1066-1450). The dividing line is the
Norman Conquest of England following the Battle of Hastings
which marked the introduction of heavy French influences into
English. Some scholars prefer to mark the years 1100-1350 as
the "Anglo-Norman" period, since most courtly literature
in England was written in Norman-French rather than English.
Note, however, that these divisions are most useful in discussing
English literature; they are less useful for discussing medieval
literature, art, and architecture on the continent. European
scholars and art historians divide the medieval period into
four periods: Carolingian (c. 750-900), Ottonian (c. 900-1056),
Romanesque (c. 1057-1150), and Gothic (1150-1475).
For our literary purposes,
however, the Anglo-Saxon and Middle English periods serve
a useful division. The early medieval centuries (often misleadingly
called "the Dark Ages") are marked by the disintegration
of classical Greco-Roman culture and the volkerwanderung
of Germanic tribes into western Europe, followed by gradual
conversions to Christianity. Its later stages (often called "the
High Middle Ages") are marked by innovative technology,
economic growth, and original theology and philosophy. The
in western Europe is linked with feudalism
in government, guildhouses
in economics, monasticism and Catholicism in religion, and
castles and knights in chivalrous
military custom. Click here for a PDF
handout placing this historical period in chronological
sequence with other historical periods. Click below for a
list of historical events in various centuries:
ESTATES SATIRE: A medieval
common among French poets in which the speaker lists various
occupations among the three estates of feudalism
(nobles, peasants, and clergy) and depicts them in a manner
that shows how short they fall from the ideal of that occupation.
In the late medieval period, the genre expanded to
discuss the failings of bourgeois
individuals as well. The genre was not unknown in
England. John Gower's Vox Clamantis and Confessio
have passages similar to those in continental estates satire.
Jill Mann suggests in her famous book, Chaucer and Medieval
Estates Satire, that the General Prologue of The Canterbury
Tales is itself an example of this genre. See
satire, and three
ROMANCE: See discussion under romance,
A thoughtful or contemplative essay, sermon, discussion, or
treatise--especially one that encourages introspection and self-analysis. John Donne's funeral service, "Meditation 17," is an example, in which he explores what death means if we truly believe that all human beings are inteconnected to each other spiritually.
Understatement, the opposite of exaggeration: "I was somewhat
worried when the psychopath ran toward me with a chainsaw."
(i.e., I was terrified). Litotes (especially popular
in Old English
poetry) is a type of meiosis in which the writer uses a statement
in the negative to create the effect: "You know, Einstein is
not a bad mathematician." (i.e., Einstein is a good mathematician.)
"That pustulant wart is somewhat unbeautiful" (i.e., That pustulant wart is ugly). Litotes is recognizable in English by negatives like not, no, non- and un-.)
A dramatic form characterized by excessive sentiment, exaggerated
emotion, sensational and thrilling action, and an artificially
happy ending. Melodramas originally referred to romantic plays
featuring music, singing, and dancing, but by the eighteenth
century they connoted simplified and coincidental plots, bathos,
and happy endings. These melodramatic traits are present in
Gothic novels, western stories, popular films, and television
crime shows, to name but a few more recent examples.
An idea or pattern
of thought that "replicates" like a virus by being
passed along from one thinker to another. A meme might be
a song or advertising jingle
gets stuck in one's head, a particularly amusing joke or
entertaining story one feels compelled to pass on, a memorable
phrase that gets quoted repeatedly in public speeches or
in published books, a political ideology, an
invention, a teacher's lesson plan, or even a religious belief.
appearing in plural form as memoirs, from Latin,
memoria "memory" via French mémoire):
An autobiographical sketch--especially one that focuses less
on the author's
personal life or psychological
development and more on the notable people and events the
author has encountered or witnessed. Examples include
memoirs published by Winston Churchill and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The memoir contrasts
with a diary or
journal, i.e., the memoir is not an informal daily record
of events in a person's life, it is
not necessarily written for personal pleasure, and the author
of such memoir has in mind the ultimate goal of publication.
Contrast with biography and memoir-novel.
A novel purporting to be a factual or autobiographical
but which is completely or partially imaginary. The authorial
voice or speaker is typically a made-up character who never
actually lived. This creation is not so much a hoax as
a literary convention or an artistic device.
An early example would be Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Moll
Flanders. Later eighteenth-century examples include
The Vicar of Wakefield and Mackenzie's The Man
of Feeling. While this convention became less popular
in the nineteenth-century, some examples have appeared in
and twenty-first century literature--including Umberto
Eco's Baudolino (my own personal favorite).
RECONSTRUCTION: Renaissance actors reconstructing the
text of a play from their own (sometimes faulty) memory. Acting
companies often lost or gained members rapidly. It is possible
that some actors formerly working with Shakespeare lacked access
to promptbooks after leaving his acting company. These players
may have attempted to reconstruct the plays by memory. Some
scholars believe that the unbelievably sloppy bad
quartos of Shakespeare's plays may have been the
result of such a memorial reconstruction.
PLAY: The term coined by Tennessee
Williams to describe non-realistic dramas, such as The Glass
Menagerie, in which the audience experiences the past as
remembered by a narrator, complete with music from the period
remembered, and images representing the characters' thoughts,
fears, emotions, and recollections projected on a scrim in the
background. See drama,
ORDERS (also called friars):
Orders of wandering monks who lived by begging. In the Middle
Ages, the clergy was divided into secular clergy and
regular clergy. The secular (i.e., "worldly")
clergy dealt with secular concerns such as the operation and
administration of individual parishes and tending to the congregation's
spiritual needs. It was composed of the priests, bishops, archbishops,
and cardinals. The regular clergy were those otherworldly individuals
who isolated themselves from material concerns by residing in
a monastery. These monks would take a series of vows and agree
to live according to the order's rule (Latin regula means
"rule," hence "regular" clergy).
While all the regular orders
took a vow of poverty individually, the mendicant orders also
took a vow of communal or corporate poverty, vowing to subsist
entirely on begging from day-to-day, hence the name "mendicant"
or "begging." It was hoped that this sort of vow would
prevent abuses that occurred in monasteries, in which individual
monks had no personal wealth, but the monastery as a whole was
a powerful corporate entity possessing thousands of acres of
land and its collective income, allowing the "impoverished"
monks to often live a luxurious existence in spite of their
individual vows of poverty. Some monasteries became such powerful
landowning institutions that, at one point in England, it has
been estimated that one-quarter to one-third of all available
land was in the possession or control of various abbots. This
situtation granted the monastic clergy political and financial
power comparable to that of the secular branch of church; it
was a far cry from the original intention of these monks to
remove themselves from petty worldly matters in order to focus
on spiritual contemplation.
In reaction to this situation,
a series of reformers such as Saint Dominic and Saint Francis
of Assissi espoused the idea of a new type of religious order--the
mendicants. Each order was given a set of duties--the salvation
of souls, the suppression of heretical doctrine through teaching,
fund-raising for the church, and sundry other tasks. There
remain from the Middle Ages four great mendicant orders recognized
by the Second Council of Lyons in 1274 CE:
In more recent centuries,
the council of Trent granted all the mendicant orders except
the Friars Minor and the Capuchins the right to have corporate
property like other monasteries.
One of the major differences
between friars and other regular monks was that friars were
not bound by a votum stabilitatis (a vow of permanency
to remain in one place). Instead, they were at liberty to wander
from place to place teaching if given the permission of the
"general" of their order. Indeed, such mobility was
necessary, since the friars' primary task was, as it states
in their mission statement, "to save souls." Thus,
while other monks sought to follow an eremitical tradition that
would remove them from worldly concerns, and isolate themselves
from the general public beyond the monastery's walls, the mendicant
orders deliberately reinserted themselves into the world so
they could preach, teach, and beg.
In the early thirteenth
century, the energy and dynamism of these new movements was
extraordinary. Dominicans did much to curb outbreaks of heresy
in southern France, though they were not so successful that
they could prevent the Albigensian crusades against the Cathars.
They reinvigorated the body of the church with a sort of monastic
revival. By a century later, however, new problems and abuses
began to arise.
Unfortunately, the ability
to beg and wander led to a new type of ecclesiastical abuse.
Part of the spiritual "glue" holding a monastery together
is the supervision of an abbot, who would oversee the monks
and make sure they are not straying into sin. Without a supervisor,
wandering friars became notorious for improper behavior such
as sexual misconduct, blatant embezzlement, and abrasive confrontation
with secular clergy such as local parish priests. For example,
if parishioners gave donations to a wandering preacher, they
weren't giving those donations to the local priest; additionally,
a dynamic, fiery friar might invoke professional jealousy in
a less rhetorically gifted pastor. Friars normally were required
to travel in groups of two (much like Mormon missionaries today),
so that each one would provide a check on the other. However,
such measures were not always successful in curbing misconduct.
This abuse became a source of much popular resentment and frustration.
In literature, this manifested itself in anti-fraternal satire.
Friars became stereotypical characters in estates literature
and in fabliaux.
Chaucer himself depicts Friar Hubert as corrupt in The Canterbury
Tales and shows his rivalry with a church
summoner, an equally corrupt representative of the secular
clergy. They insult each other's professions in their tales.
The dialect of Old English spoken in the region of Mercia.
In linguistics, another term for leveling.
See discussion under zeugma.
"measure"): In French chivalric literature, the equivalent
of Latin moderatio--the ability to follow a golden
mean and not go to unreasonable extremes. This trait contrasts
with the demesure (excessive actions or unconrolled
passions) of figures like the knight Roland in the Chanson
In the literature of courtly love, a frequent debate is
whether the ideal courtly lover should have mesure or demesure.
Drama in which the subject of the play is dramatic art itself,
especially when such material breaks up the illusion of watching
reality. When Macbeth cries out, "Life's
but a walking shadow, a poor player / who struts and frets his
hour upon the stage, / and then is heard no more,"
his references to "shadows" and "players"
(Renaissance slang for actors) and his discussion of the stage
serve to remind the audience forcefully that they are watching
a dramatic artifice, not a real historical event. The references
break down verisimilitude to call attention to the fact that
viewers are watching a staged performance. Likewise, the opening
to Taming of the Shrew forcefully emphasizes that the
events we see are a fiction, as does Hamlet's plan to use The
Mouse-Trap as an ethical litmus test for Claudius: "The
play's the thing / wherin I'll catch the conscience of the king."
Fiction in which the subject of the story is the act or
art of storytelling of itself, especially when such material
breaks up the illusion of "reality" in a work. An
example is John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman,
in which the author interrupts his own narative to insert
as a character in the work. Claiming not to like the ending
to the tale, the author sets his watch back ten minutes,
the storyline backs up ten minutes so an alternative ending
can unfold. The act reminds us that the passionate love affair
we are so involved in as readers is a fictional creation of
an author at that point when we are most likely to have forgotten
that artificiality because of our involvement. Other examples
include Chaucer's narrator in the Canterbury Tales,
in which the pilgrim tells the
"turn the leaf [page] and choose another tale" if
the audience doesn't like naughty stories like the Miller's
tale. This command breaks the illusion that Geoffrey is a real
person on pilgrimage, calling attention to the fictional qualities
of The Canterbury Tales as a physical artifact--a
book held in the readers' hands. Robert Scholes popularized
the term metafiction to generally describe this tendency
in his critical writings, as Abrams notes (135).
Literary art focused on the subject of literary art itself.
Often this term is further divided into metapoetry,
A comparison or analogy stated in such a way as to imply that
one object is another one, figuratively speaking. When we speak
of "the ladder of success," we imply that being successful
is much like climbing a ladder to a higher and better position.
Another example comes from an old television add from the 1980s
urging teenagers not to try drugs. The camera would focus on
a close-up of a pair of eggs and a voice would state "This
is your brain." In the next sequence, the eggs would be
cracked and thrown onto a hot skillet, where the eggs would
bubble, burn, and seeth. The voice would state, "This is
your brain on drugs." The point of the comparison is fairly
clear. Another example is how Martin Luther wrote, "A mighty fortress
is our God, / A bulwark never failing." (Mighty
fortress and bulwark are the two metaphors for God in these lines.)
A metaphor is an example of a rhetorical trope, and such metaphors have a long history of critical discussion. Aristotle, for instance, claimed "the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances" (qtd in Deutsche 84). Often,
a metaphor suggests something symbolic in its imagery. For instance,
Wordsworth uses a metaphor when he states of England, "she
is a fen of stagnant waters," which implies something about
the state of political affairs in England as well as the island's
biomes. Sometimes, the metaphor can be emotionally powerful,
such as John Donne's use of metaphor in "Twickenham Garden,"
where he writes, "And take my tears, which are love's wine"
If we break down a metaphorical statement into its component parts, the real-world subject (first item) in a metaphoric statement
is known as the tenor.
The second item (often an imaginary one or at least not present in a literal sense) to which the tenor refers is called the vehicle. For example, consider the metaphorical statement, "Susan is a viper in her cruel treacheries." Here, Susan is the tenor in the metaphor, and viper is the vehicle in the same metaphor. The tenor, Susan, is literally present or literally exists. The vehicle, the hypothetical or imagined viper, is not necessarily physically present.
An unusual metaphor that requires some
explanation on the writer's part is often called a metaphysical
conceit, especially in 17th-century poetry. If the metaphorical connection is merely implied rather than directly stated, such as talking about "the ladder of success," the term is a "subdued metaphor." The combination of two different metaphors into a single, awkward
image is called a "mixed metaphor" or abusio.
See also tenor, vehicle,
subdued metaphor, and telescoped metaphor. Contrast with simile.
POETRY: See discussion under metaphysical
POETS: In his 1693 work, Discourse of Satire,
John Dryden used the term metaphysical
to describe the style of certain poets earlier in the 17th century.
Later, Samual Johnson popularized the term in 1779. The term
metaphysical implies the poetry is abstract and highly
complex. The chief metaphysical poets include John Donne, Richard
Crashaw, Andrew Marvell, George Herbert, and Henry Vaughan.
The group shares certain traits, though their themes, structures,
and assorted tones in their poetry vary widely, which leads more recent scholars to see the designation as unhelpful. (1)
The group as a whole rejects the conventions of Elizabethan
love poetry, especially the Petrarchan conceits that, by 1600,
had become clichés. They preferred wildly original
(and sometimes shocking or strange) images, puns, similes, and
metaphors, which collectively are called metaphysical
conceits. (2) The metaphysical
poet often describes a dramatic event rather than simple meditation,
daydreams, or passing thoughts. (3) The metaphysical
poets employed inconsistant or striking verse--often imitating
the rhythmic patterns of everyday speech, rather than attempting
to create perfect meter in the manner later favored by neoclassical
poets. Basically, the metaphysical poets would not let metrical
form interfere with the development of a line of thought.
(4) The poem often expresses an argument--often using
wild flights of logic and unusual comparisons. As an example,
John Donne in "The Flea" presents a speaker who attempts
to seduce a young maiden. The basis of his argument is the comparison
between sex and a flea-bite. In "Holy Sonnet 14,"
Donne fashions a prayer in which he compares God to a rapist
and himself to a besieged city.
A type of neologism
in which misspelling a word creates a rhetorical effect. To
one might spell dog as "dawg." To emphasize
that something is unimportant, we might add -let or -ling
at the end of the word, referring to a deity as a "godlet"
or a prince as a "princeling." To emphasize the feminine
nature of something normally considered masculine, try adding
the suffix -ette to the end of the word, creating a smurfette
or a corvette. To modernize something old, the writer
might turn the Greek god Hermes into the Hermenator.
Likewise, Austin Powers renders all things shagedelic.
For more information, see the subdivisions of metaplasmus under
Poetry about poetry, especially self-conscious poems that pun
on objects or items associated with writing or creating poetry.
Among the Romantic and Enlightenment poets, we find puns on
leaves (referring on one
hand to the leaves of plants, and on another to the leaves or
pages of a book of poetry), feet
(referring on one level to the body part, and on another to
the metrical feet of a poem), and so on. Other types of metapoetry
involve self-conscious commentary on the poem's own genre
or on the process of creating the poem. A fine example of this
type of metapoetry is Billy Collins' "Sonnet":
we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
And after this next one just a dozen
To launch a little ship on love's storm-tossed seas,
then only ten more left like rows of beans.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
and insist the iambic bongos must be played
and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
one for every station of the cross.
But hang on here while we make the turn
into the final six where all will be resolved,
where longing and heartache will find an end,
where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take off those crazy medieval tights,
blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.
Here, we can clearly see
the self-reflective tendencies, in which the poet discusses
how many more lines he needs to finish a traditional sonnet
(lines 1-4), he directly comments on the traditional subject-matter
of the sonnet, the rejected love of the speaker (alluded to
in line 3), he adds an amusing allusion
to the normal requirements of rhyme, meter and iambic pentameter,
which the poet rejects (lines 5-8), and he adds a direct reference
to the turn or volta, in the exact moment when the volta is
required in an Italian sonnet. Finally the poet alludes to Laura
(the woman to whom Petrarch dedicated his sonnets) and to Petrarch,
the inventor of the sonnnet-structure that Collins mimics and
alters simultaneously. The subject-matter of this sonnet is
the conventional sonnet itself; thus, it is metapoetry. See
The transposition of two sounds in speech or spelling. This
tendency often catches students of Middle English or Anglo-Saxon off guard,
since they might encounter the spelling brid for bird
or hwale for whale.
A recognizable though varying pattern of stressed syllables
alternating with syllables of less stress. Compositions written
in meter are said to be in verse. There are
many possible patterns of verse. Each unit of stress and unstressed
syllables is called a "foot." The following examples
are culled from M. H. Abrams' Glossary of Literary Terms,
seventh edition, which has more information. You can also
click here to download a PDF handout giving examples of
particular types of feet, or click
here for a longer PDF handout discussing meter and scansion.
Iambic (the noun is
"iamb" or "iambus"): a lightly
stressed syllable followed by a heavily stressed syllable.
"The cúrfew tólls the
knéll of párting dáy." (Thomas Gray,
"Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.")
noun is "anapest") two light syllables followed by
a stressed syllable: "The
Assyrian came dówn like a wólf on the fóld."
(Lord Byron, "The Destruction of Sennacherib.")
Trochaic (the noun
is "trochee") a stressed followed by a light syllable:
they áre, my fífty men and wómen."
Dactylic (the noun
is "dactyl"): a stressed syllable followed by two light
with her básket, was / Déep in the bélls
Iambs and anapests, since
the strong stress is at the end, are called "rising meter";
trochees and dactyls, with the strong stress at the beginning
with lower stress at the end, are called "falling meter." Additionally,
if a line ends in a standard iamb, with a final stressed syllable,
it is said to have a masculine ending. If a line ends in a lightly
stressed syllable, it is said to be feminine. To hear the difference,
read the following examples aloud and listen to the final stress:
the night before Christmas, and all through the house,
a creature was stirring, not even a mouse."
the night before Christmas, and all through the housing,
a creature was stirring, not even a mousing."
We name a metric line according
to the number of "feet"
in it. If a line has four feet, it is tetrameter. If
a line has five feet, it is pentameter. Six feet, hexameter,
and so on. English verse tends to be pentameter, French verse
tetrameter, and Greek verse, hexameter. When scanning a line,
we might, for instance, describe the line as "iambic pentameter"
(having five feet, with each foot tending to be a light syllable
followed by heavy syllable), or "trochaic tetrameter"
(having four feet, with each foot tending to be a long syllable
followed by a short syllable). Here is a complete list of the
various verse structures:
See also quantitative
Any specific use or specific example of metonymy,
or any symbol in which a specific physical object is used as
a vague suggestive symbol for a more general idea. See metonymy
Using a vaguely suggestive, physical object to embody a more
general idea. The term metonym also
applies to the object itself used to suggest that more general
idea. Some examples of metonymy are using the metonym crown
in reference to royalty or the entire royal family, or stating
"the pen is mightier
than the sword" to
suggest that the power of education and writing is more potent
for changing the world than military force. One of my former
students wrote in an argumentative essay, "If we cannot strike
offenders in the heart, let us strike them in the wallet," implying
by her metonym that if we cannot make criminals regret their
actions out of their guilty consciences, we can make them regret
their actions through financial punishment. We use metonymy
in everyday speech when we refer to the entire movie-making
industry as the L. A. suburb "Hollywood" or the
advertising industry as the street "Madison Avenue"
(and when we refer to businessmen working there as "suits.")
Journalists use metonymy to refer to the collective decisions
of the United States government as "Washington" or
when they use the term "the White House" as a shorthand
reference for the executive bureaucracy in American government.
Popular writer Thomas Friedman coined a recent metonym, "the
Arab Street," as a shorthand reference for the entire population
of Muslim individuals in Saudi Arabia, Yeman, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan,
Afghanistan, and the surrounding areas. When students talk about
studying "Shakespeare," they mean metonymically all
his collected works of drama and poetry, rather than the historical
writer's life alone, and so on.
This adjective describes anything written in patterns of meter, as opposed to prose.
FOOT: See discussion uner meter
or click here for a handout in PDF
SUBSTITUTION: A way of varying poetic meter by taking a
single foot of the normal meter and replacing it with a foot
of different meter. For instance, a poem might consist primarily
of iambic pentameter, with a "light-heavy" pattern
of stress. The poet might add variety by occasionally inserting
a foot consisting of two stresses (spondeic substitution) or
a foot with a reversed pattern of "heavy-light" stress
(trochaic substitution). See meter.
When a poet uses metrical substitution to replace the first
entire foot with a single stressed beat, the result is an acephalous
An alternative spelling of mesozeugma. See discussion under
MIASMA (Greek, "stench"): Literally referring to a stench or bad smell, the Greek term also metaphorically indicates a sort of ceremonial taint or spiritual stain that can result from various sorts of impurity. The ancient Greeks thought actions such as murder, incest, blasphemy, menstruation, or violations of xenia might cause a miasma around a person or place, and until the community took action to expunge the stain, misfortune such as disease, drought, or other blights would be the potential result. Normally, people thought to be stained by miasma were forbidden to pass the sacred marker (temenos) separating the holy ground of a temple or a public forum from non-sacred space. The term is particularly applicable in the play Oedipus Rex, in which the entire community of Thebes has fallen under a curse because of a miasma in their midst.
The human body. Renaissance thinkers believed that the human
body was a "little universe" that reflected changes in the macrocosm,
or greater universe.
VOWEL: In linguistics,
any vowel sound made with the jaw and tongue positioned between
articulations for high and
low vowels. An example of a mid-vowel would be the vowel
sound in pate.
COMEDY: Greek comedies written in the early 300s BCE, in
which the exaggerated costumes and the chorus
of the Old Comedy were eliminated. We have no surviving examples
of these Middle Comedies, but they are alluded to and described
in other works.
ENGLISH: The version of English spoken after the Norman
Conquest from 1066 but before 1450 or so. Before the Norman
Conquest, the common version of English was Old
English or Anglo-Saxon,
a Germanic language that is difficult to read without specialized
training. An influx of Norman French and Latin vocabulary after
the Normans conquered England resulted in rapid changes in spoken
English. Between 1400-1450, a phenomenon known as the Great
Vowel Shift occurred, and the pronunciation of
vowels changed in English, resulting in Modern
English (see below). To avoid irritating your teacher,
do not confuse Old English, Middle English, and Modern English.
This diagram will help you
The sea-voyage from Africa to the West Indies and/or the
Americas commonly used by slave-traders. It plays a prominent
part in slave-narratives and abolitionist literature, including
works such as Aphra Behn's Oronooko and Olaudah
MIDVERBS: As Kolln and Funk define it, midverbs are a group of verbs that have characteristics of both transitive and intransitive verbs. Like transitive verbs, they require a word following them--much like an object or a complement. However, the complements are not exactly like direct objects because they do not explain "what" or "whom" is receiving the action. Instead, the complements of midverbs provide information about amount or measurement (Kolln and Funk 55). Examples include the verbs weigh and cost (55). For instance, "The corpse weighed two-hundred pounds." Here, weighed is a midverb. The word pounds is sort of like a direct object to the verb weighs, but since it shows an equivalence with corpse, it is sort of like a predicate noun or a subject complement also. Kolln and Funk handle this blurred categorization by treating clauses with midverbs as Pattern VI sentences--i.e., they treat the complement as a mere adverbial.
GLORIOSUS (Lat. "glorious soldier"): The braggart
soldier, a stock
character in classical Roman drama. The braggart soldier
is cowardly but boasts of his past deeds, and he becomes involved
in sexual catastrophes, bullying, and thievery. The miles
gloriosus is frequently of low morals. Shakespeare probably based Falstaff
in Renaissance literatureon the common miles gloriosus in classical
famous by Milton's poetry--especially Paradise
Lost. Examples include the dark angels or twisted demons
laboring at Pandemonium's construction deep below the earth
in fiery shadow, especially when such imagery is taken
in contrast with the pastoral tranquility of Eden or the
afloat in glowing clouds. Likewise, the motif of the rejected,
fallen, rebellious seraphim struggling
the Almighty's white lightning remains a haunting
image in Milton's poetry. These Miltonic images have influenced
number of later literary works. In H. G. Wells' The Time
Machine, Wells used Miltonic imagery in the Morlocks
and Eloi, where (it initially appears) the troglodytic Morlocks
labor in darkness under the earth and the child-like Eloi
play in the blissful garden above. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein steals
Miltonic imagery by casting the monster as both an innocent
Adam figure and simultaneously a rebellious Satan
figure who rejects his maker as flawed and morally inferior.
In many cases, Miltonic tradition shapes modern Christian
much more than the ancient
tradition of sheol itself.
Mimesis is usually translated as "imitation"
or "representation," though the concept is much more
complex than that and doesn't translate easily into English.
It is an imitation or representation of something else rather
than an attempt to literally duplicate the original. For instance,
Aristotle in The Poetics defined tragedy as "the
imitation [mimesis] of an action." In his sense,
both poetry and drama are attempts to take an instance of human
action and represent or re-present its essence while
translating it into a new "medium" of material. For
example, a play about World War II is an attempt to take the
essence of an actual, complex historical event involving millions
of people and thousands of square miles over several years and
recreate that event in a simplified representation involving
a few dozen people in a few thousand square feet over a few
hours. The play would be a mimesis of that historic event
using stage props, lighting, and individual actors to convey
the sense of what World War II was to the audience. In the same
way, the process of mimesis might involve creating a
film about World War II (translating the event into images projected
onto a flat screen or monitor using chemical images on a strip
of photosynthetic film), or writing a poem about World War II
would constitute an attempt at distilling that meaning into
syllables, stress, verse, and diction. Picasso might attempt
to embody warfare as a montage of destruction--his painting
Guernica is the result. The degree to which each form
of art accurately embodies the essence of its subject determines
(for many classical theorists of art) the degree of its success.
may involve ecphrasis--the
act of translating art from one type of media into another.
A classical musician or composer might be entranced by an earlier
bit of folkloric art, the legend of William Tell. He attempts
to imitate or represent the stirring emotions of that story
by creating a stirring song that has the same effect; thus,
the famous "The William Tell Overture" results. A
story has been translated into a musical score. It is also possible
to attempt mimesis of one medium into the same medium.
For instance, American musician Aaron Copland was inspired by
the simplicity of Quaker music, so he attempted to re-create
that music mimetically in "Appalachian Spring," much
like he earlier attempted mimetically to capture the American
spirit in "Fanfare for the Common Man."
In literature, ecphrasis
is likewise used to describe the way literature describes or
mimics other media (other bits of art, architecture, music and
so on). For instance, "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is largely
Keats' poetic attempt to capture the eternal and changeless
nature of visual art depicted on an excavated piece of pottery.
Chaucer's "Knight's Tale" involves an elaborate architectural
recreation of three pagan temples, and the artwork on the walls
of those temples, as well as the verbal construction of an entire
coliseum to enclose a knightly combat. These are both ecphrases
seeking to turn one type of non-verbal art into verbal art through
PAIR: Also called contrastive pairs,
these are two words that differ by only a single sound, such
as gin-pin. Linguists
commonly use minimal pairs for illustrating subtle sound differences.
The German term for fin amour, i.e., courtly
Any German minstril who writes poems and songs about
love in the medieval period. He is usually considered
the German equivalent of the French troubadour.
MINUSCULE: A small or lowercase letter,
in contrast with majuscule,
a large or capital letter. The invention of minuscule allowed
for faster, more compact writing in scriptoria.
OF THE VIRGIN: A vita or a miracle play
that dramatizes some aspect of humanity activity, and ends with
the miraculous intervention of the Blessed Virgin. See discussion
play (below), and vita.
PLAY: Not to be confused with medieval morality plays, a
miracle play is a medieval drama depicting either biblical stories,
the miracle(s) performed by a saint, or the martyrdom of a saint
in Christian traditions. (Some critics prefer the third definition
and reject the first two.) Miracle plays were usually presented
in a cycle, such as dramas dealing with the Virgin Mary, the
fall of man, and so on. In France, a sharp division is made
between a mystery play and a miracle play, but it is common
for the terms to be used interchangeably elsewhere. Few examples
of miracle plays survive in English (the oldest being "Play of Saint Catherine" from the area of Dunstable), but in France, there remains
a famous cycle of Les Miracles de Notre Dame, forty-two
plays belonging to the second half of the 1300s written in octosyllabic
couplets. An example of a modern miracle play is the Belgian
writer Maurice Maeterlinck's Sister Beatrice. The general
emphasis in a miracle play is to astonish and inspire the viewer
with a sense of wonder at the numinous. An entire subgenre of
of the virgin also exist. Contrast with morality
play and mystery
PASSAGE: A section of a story that might not contribute
directly to the plot (i.e., it contains characters divorced
from the main narrative, and the events it deals with do not
further the action) but which does reflect the basic concerns
of the work in terms of theme, action, or symbolism or which
seems to echo another scene, image, or situation. For instance,
the Miller's story in The Canterbury Tales creates a
love triangle to mock and mirror the love triangle in the Knight's
earlier narrative, or the three daily hunts that mirror the tactics of the bedroom seduction in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or the way Aeneas's attempt to hug Creüsa's
ghost thrice mirrors his attempt to embrace the ghost of his
father Anchises in The Aeneid, or the inversion of
words and tears that distinguishes Aeneas and Dido's two farewells--the
first at Carthage and the second in the Underworld. See also
SCENE: A scene in a play or novel that does not contribute
directly to the plot (i.e., it contains characters divorced
from the main narrative, and the events it deals with do not
further the action,) but which does mirror the basic concerns
of the play or narrative in terms of theme, action, or symbolism.
For instance, the scene with the gardeners in Richard
relates symbolically to the fact that Richard, as king, is
not tending his own little Eden, the isle of Britain. The
with Christopher Sly in the opening of The Taming of the
Shrew does not relate directly to Petruchio's wooing of
Kate, but it does establish the theme of how appearance might
not match reality. See also mirror
for the Modern Language Association. English students primarily
know the MLA as the publisher of the MLA guidelines for research
papers, the standard format used in American college English
classes. Founded in 1883, this organization is a professional
guild of sorts for professors and instructors of a variety of
subjects: foreign languages, linguistics, composition, technical
writing, philology, rhetoric, and literature. Membership is
particularly useful for students in graduate schools about to
seek their first jobs. (Membership allows them access to the
JIL, the Job Information
Listings.) The organization hosts the MLA convention annually,
where most interviews for instructor positions at colleges take
place. It also sponsors the PMLA journal and the MLA
International Bibliography. You can learn more at the MLA
EPIC: In contrast with an epic,
a mock epic is a long, heroicomical
poem that merely imitates features of the classical epic. The
poet often takes an elevated style of language, but incongruously
applies that language to mundane or ridiculous objects and situations.
The mock epic focuses frequently on the exploits of an antihero
whose activities illustrate the stupidity of the class or group
he represents. Various other attributes common to the classical
epic, such as the invocation
of the muse or the intervention of the gods, or
the long catalogs of characters, appear in the mock epic as
well, only to be spoofed. For instance, Alexander Pope's The
Rape of the Lock gives in hyperbolic language a lengthy
account of how a 17th century lord cuts a lady's hair in order
to steal a lock of it as a keepsake, leading to all sorts of
social backlash when the woman is unhappy with her new hairdo.
Lord Byron's Don Juan gives a lengthy list of the sexual
conquests and catastrophes associated with a precocious young
lord, Don Juan. Both are fine examples of the mock epic. In
some ways, the mock epic is the opposite of a travesty.
See also spoof,
SERMON: A medieval genre
commonly known as "une sermon joyeux" or "une
sermon joli," its conventions are that a non-clerical
figure will present a humorous lecture on a non-religious topic
(sexuality and food being two common choices) using all the
tropes and conventions of a normal homily--such
as the introduction and explication of a Biblical passage, allusions
to various intellectual figures, a series of exempla
to prove the speaker's point, and a concluding invocation of
prayer. Some critics have read Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's
Prologue" as a mock sermon concerning a woman's place in
marriage, for instance. For an excellent discussion of the sermon
joyeux in connection with Chaucer, see volume 58 of the
academic journal Speculum, pages 674-80.
ENGLISH: The English language
as spoken between about 1450 and the modern day. The language
you are speaking now and the language Shakespeare spoke are
both considered examples of Modern English. Modern English is
distinct from Middle English (spoken c. 1100 to 1400) in that
vowels are pronounced differently after the Great
Vowel Shift (1400-1450). Both Middle English and
Modern English are distinct from Old English in that Old English
and Middle English had numerous letters (such as the letters
ash, thorn, and eth) and some sounds (such
as yogh) that were used much more commonly. Old English
also used elaborate declensions that have mostly fallen out
of use in Modern English. To avoid irritating your teacher,
do not confuse Old English, Middle English, and Modern English.
This diagram will help you
contrast them. A good rule of thumb is that, (a) if you can
read it easily, it's probably modern English, (b) if you can
read it with some difficulty, but there are many words "misspelled"
and an occasional strange letter, it's probably Middle English,
and (c) if you can't read it all, and it looks like a foreign
language with letters you
don't recognize, you are probably looking at Old English.
English and Old
A vague, amorphous term referring to the art, poetry, literature,
architecture, and philosophy of Europe and America in the early
twentieth-century. Scholars do not agree exactly when Modernism
began--most suggest after World War I, but some suggest it started
as early as the late nineteenth century in France. Likewise,
some assert Modernism ended with World War II or the bombing
of Nagasaki, to be replaced with Postmodernism, or that modernism
lasted until the 1960s, when post-structural linguistics dethroned
it. Others suggest that the division between modernism and postmodernism
is false, and that postmodernism is merely the continuing process
of Modernism. Under the general umbrella of Modernism, we find
several art movements such as surrealism, formalism, and various
avante-garde French movements. Professor Frank Kermode
further divides modernism into paleo-modernism (1914-1920) and
neo-modernism (1920-1942). However, these divisions are hardly
agreed upon by historians and critics. In general, modernism
is an early twentieth-century artistic marked by the following
characteristics: (1) the desire to break away from established
traditions, (2) a quest to find fresh ways to view man's position
or function in the universe, (3) experiments in form and style,
particularly with fragmentation--as opposed to the "organic"
theories of literary unity appearing in the Romantic
periods, and (4) a lingering concern with metaliterature.
To see where modernism fits into a chronological listing of
the major literary periods, click here for a
LANGUAGE ASSOCIATION: See MLA.
Fate or the three fates in Greek mythology. Contrast with
MOLOSSUS: A rare metrical foot of three-stressed syllables, such as might appear in bacchic meter. It is also called a bacchic foot or a bachius .It is nonstandard in most English verse.
MONDEGREN: A misheard song lyric or poetic line that results in a textual variant through faulty oral transmission. The result is often amusing in nature. For example, the 1967 rock singer Jimi Hendrix had a set of lyrics in "Purple Haze" in which the speaker states in pantheistic bliss, "'Scuse me while I kiss the sky." However, the background music garbled his pronunciation, and many confused listeners misinterpreted the line as "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy."
Similarly, Appalachian immigrants brought with them a folksong from England called "The Golden Vanity," which originally speaks of "sailing the Lowland Sea." After a few generations, the landlocked Appalachian descendants did not know what the Lowland Sea referred to any longer, and the singers created a mondegren, "sailing the lonesome sea." Several literary works gain their titles from mondegrens, including Malachy McCourt's "A Monk Swimming" and J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye."
The original term mondegren to describe this sort of mistake first appeared in an essay by Sylvia Wright, which Harper's Magazine published in November of 1954. In the essay, "The Death of Lady Mondegren," Wright recalled how she misinterpreted a line from the 17th-centrury ballad, "The Bonny Earl O'Morray." Here, the original line reads, "They hae slain the Earl O'Moray, / and laid him on the Green." She, however, heard, "They hae slain the Earl O'Moray, / and Lady Mondegren."
represented as the utterance of a single speaker. Compare with
The theory that, if two similar stories, words, or images
appear in two different geographic regions
or languages, they are actually related to each other rather
than appearing independently. Either one was the original
and the others adopted it later, or all the surviving examples
come from an older (possibly lost) source. Contrast with polygenesis.
(contrast with soliloquy
monologue): An interior monologue does not necessarily
represent spoken words, but rather the internal or emotional
thoughts or feelings of an individual, such as William Faulkner's
long interior monologues within The Sound and The Fury.
Monologue can also be used to refer to a character speaking
aloud to himself, or narrating an account to an audience with
no other character on stage. Cf. dramatic
In linguistics, Algeo defines this as "A simple vowel
with a single, stable quality"
(323) Simon Horobin calls it, "a pure vowel with no change
in quality" (192). Contrast with diphthong.
See also monophthongization.
The tendency of diphthongs to turn into simple vowels over
time, or the actual process by which diphthongs turn into
such vowels. Contrast with diphthongization.
A poem or section of a poem in which all the lines have the
same end rhyme. The rhyming pattern would thus look like this:
AAAA AAAA, AAA AAA, or
AA AA AA AA,
etc. It is a common rhyme scheme in Latin, Italian, Arabic,
Welsh, and Slav poetry, especially in the Slav poetry of the
tradition. Because of the fact that English nouns are not declined
and our adjectives do not have gender consistently indicated
by particular endings, it is much harder to make effective poetic
use of monorhyme in the English poetry. However, Shakespeare
makes frequent use of it is a bit of doggerel in his plays.
For instance, in The Merchant of Venice, we find the
following section in monorhyme:
The fire seven times tried this;
Seven times tried that judgment is
That did never choose amiss
Some there be that shadows kiss
There be fools alive iwis,
Silvered o'er, and so was this.
Take what wife you will to bed
I will ever be your head.
So be gone; you are sped. (2.9.62-71)
only one syllable.
(from Anglo-Saxon, mod "heart" or "spirit"): (1) In literature, a feeling, emotional state,
or disposition of mind--especially the predominating atmosphere
or tone of a literary work. Most pieces of literature have a
prevailing mood, but shifts in this prevailing mood may function
as a counterpoint, provide comic relief, or echo the changing
events in the plot. The term mood is often used synonymously
Students and critics who wish to discuss mood in their essays
should be able to point to specific diction, description, setting,
and characterization to illustrate what sets the mood. (2) In
grammar, an aspect of verbs. Click here for more information
on grammatical mood.
PLAY: A genre
of medieval and early Renaissance drama that illustrates the
way to live a pious life through allegorical characters. The
characters tend to be personified abstractions of vices and
virtues. For instance, characters named Mercy and Conscience
might work together to stop Shame and Lust from stealing Mr.
Poorman's most valuable possession, a box of gold labeled Salvation.
Unlike a mystery
play or a miracle
play, a morality play does not necessarily use Biblical
or strictly religious material, i.e., the morality play usually
does not contain specific characters found in the Bible, such
as saints or the disciples or Old Testament figures. Unlike
the miracle play, which depicts astonishing and moving miraculous
events believed to have occurred literally to specific historical
figures in specific settings, the morality play takes place
internally and psychologically in every human being. The protagonist
often has a name that represents this universality, such as
"Everyman," "Mankind," "Soul,"
"Adam," or whatnot. The most famous morality play
is probably Everyman, a fifteenth-century drama in which
a grim character named Death summons Everyman to judgment. On
his way to meet Death, Everyman discovers that all his old buddies
are abandoning him except one. His friend Good Deeds is the
only one that will accompany him to meet Death, while Beauty,
Fellowship, Kindred, Knowledge, and Strength fall by the wayside
on his journey. Other famous examples include The Castle
of Perseverance and Mankind. Contrast with mystery
play and miracle
MORPHEME: Linguistically, the smallest collection of
sounds or letters in a spoken or written word that has semiotic importance or significance--a
unit of meaning that cannot be divided into tinier units of
meaning. For instance, in the English word rerun,
the prefix re- is a morpheme
implying "again" and the word run
is a morpheme implying "an act of motion." If we try
to cut the prefix re-
into smaller collections of sounds (/r/
and /I/ phonetically), these sounds
no longer have meaning attached to them, and they are no longer
morphemes. Likewise, the morpheme run
cannot be further subdivided into meaningful morphemes. Note
that morphemes can be either
free or bound. Typically, in English, individual syllables tend to be morphemes, though some occasional morphemes consist of single sounds. Contrast with grapheme and phoneme.
MORPHOLOGY: The part of a language concerned with the
structure of morphemes
and how these morphemes combine. Linguists use this term in
contrast with syntax.
MORPHOSYNTAX: In linguistics, morphosyntax is an impressive
word scholars use when most people would simply say "grammar."
It is the study of how parts of a sentence relate to each other.
The medieval and Renaissance belief that Moses wrote all
five books of the Pentateuch. Click
here for more discussion.
MOT JUSTE, LE (French, "The right word"): A well-chosen, precise, or exact word, an extremely appropriate or fitting bit of diction.
A conspicuous recurring element, such as a type of incident,
a device, a reference, or verbal formula, which appears frequently
in works of literature. For instance, the "loathly
lady" who turns out to be a beautiful princess
is a common motif in folklore, and the man fatally bewitched
by a fairy lady is a common folkloric motif appearing in Keats'
"La Belle Dame sans Merci." In medieval Latin lyrics, the "Ubi
sunt?" [where are . . .?]
motif is common, in which a speaker mourns the lost past by
repeatedly asking, what happened to the good-old days? ("Where
are the snows of yesteryear?" asks Francois Villon.)
The motif of the "beheading
game" is common in Celtic myth, and so
on. Frequently, critics use the word motif interchangeably
See also folkloric
NOVEL: As Robert Harris defines the term
in his glossary,
a multicultural novel is
novel written by a member of or about a cultural minority
group, giving insight into non-Western or non-dominant cultural
experiences and values, either in the United States or abroad.
• Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
• Amy Tan, The Kitchen God's Wife
• Forrest Carter, The Education of Little Tree
• Margaret Craven, I Heard the Owl Call My Name
• James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain
• Chaim Potok, The Chosen
• Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Penitent
• Alice Walker, The Color Purple.
literature, multiculturalism is the belief that literary studies
writings, poetry, folklore, and plays from a number of different
cultures rather than focus on Western European civilization
See also Latino
writing and Harlem
Renaissance for two examples of multicultural
MULTIPLICATIVE: Most languages have various systems of numbering, typically at least two systems and sometimes many more. For instance, most languages distinguish between cardinal numbers (like one, two, or three in English or unus, duo, and tres in Latin) which indicate a tally and can function as adjectives or substantive adjectives, and ordinal numbers (such as first, second, and third in English or primus, secundus, and tertius in Latin), which indicate a sequence or ordering.
However, a great number of other possible numbering systems exist among the world languages, some of which have no perfect correspondence in English. These include the following:
Multiplicative numbers indicate the number of times something multiplies or recurs, such as the English words single, double, triple, or quadruple, or the Latin words simplex, duplex, triplex, and quater, etc.
Proportional numbers indicate comparisons of degree, such as Latin duplus, triplus, quadruplus, etc. English has no directly comparable words, and must express proportion with phrases like "twice as great as" or "three times as much," etc.
Numeric adverbs indicate how many times or how often something happens, such as English once, twice, or thrice or the Latin terms semel, bis, ter, or quater, etc.
Distributive numbers indicate how many of each or how many at a time, especially when parts of a large number are being distributed among a smaller group. Examples include Latin singuli, bini, terni, and quaterni. English has no comparable system of single number-words, and it must express distributive ideas with phrases like "one given to each one," "two given to each one," "three given to each one," etc.
Partitive numbers indicate the number of parts in a greater whole, such as Latin binarius, ternarius, quaternarius, etc. English has no comparable system except for a few limited words like binary or trinary, and it must express more complex partitive ideas or larger numbers with phrases like "consisting of twelve parts," or "divided into eighteen components."
Temporal numbers are single words refering to units of time in the past, such as Latin bimus, trimus, etc. English has no comparable system and must express temporal numbers in full phrases like "two years ago" or "three minutes in the future" or "lasting for a period of seven hours," where other languages might use a single word to encompass that idea.
THE NINE: The nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne
who had the power to inspire artists, poets, singers, and writers.
They are listed below along with their spheres of influence:
MUSE, INVOCATION OF:
of the muse.
OF THE SPHERES: In medieval
and Renaissance Europe, many scholars believed in a beautiful
song created by the movement of the heavenly bodies (sun, moon,
and planets). The music of spheres supposedly was infinitely
beautiful, but humans were unable to hear it, either (a) because
of their sinful separation from God, or (b) because they were
so used to its presence, their minds automatically filtered
it out as background noise.
A change in a vowel sound caused by another sound in the
syllable. In Old English and in Celtic languages like Irish
Gaelic and Welsh, the type
of mutation called i-mutation
was especially common. Another common type is the eclipsis
mutation, a mutation in which a basic consonant sound is "eclipsed"
or replaced by a stronger sound in a preceding word. For a
chart of the most common Irish mutations as examples, click
CULT: Unlike the
official "public cults" dedicated to the Olympian
gods in ancient Greece and Rome, a number of
religious practices involved chthonic deities
(like Demeter) and imported foreign gods (Ishtar, Osiris,
Mithras, etc.). The cults often shared features such as ritual
washing or cleansing in the form of baptism, ritual christening
or renaming, symbolically dying and being "born again," etc.
Possibly some may have offered
an afterlife through metempsychosis (unlike standard Greek
and Roman belief which emphasized a gloomy stay in the underworld).
Others--in the case of Dionysian worshippers--ritually "slew"
his blood symbolically
in the form of wine. Regardless of specific varying details,
these mystery cults shared a common
of secrecy--a distinction between
outsider who did not share in their special blessings
cult member who did.
The cult rituals were held to be so sacred that it was blasphemous
to reveal them to outsiders, even to speak
of them, describe them, or write them down in any way. The
rites were often held in inaccessible areas far from the
local city--on mountain-tops or sea-shores or in catacombs.
Some, like the mystery cult
of Demeter, were open to any prospective
members regardless of race, gender, or nationality as long
as they spoke sufficient Greek to
participate in the rituals. Others were open to certain professions,
such as the cult of Mithras which only allowed soldiers to
join after an initial baptism in bull's blood. Others were
restricted by family (such as local versions of the Lykian
or partly restricted by gender (such as the maenads of
CYCLE: A collection of mystery plays in a single
manuscript meant to be performed sequentially. See discusion
NOVEL: A novel focused on suspense and solving
a mystery--especially a murder, theft, kidnapping, or
crime. The protagonist faces inexplicable events, threats,
assaults, and unknown forces or antagonists. Conventionally,
is a keenly observant individual (such as Sherlock Holmes)
and the police are depicted as incompetent or incapable
the crime by themselves. Many of the works of Sir Arthur Conan
Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, and Agatha Christie are mystery
Note that this term should not be confused with the medieval mystery
PLAY: A religious play performed outdoors in the medieval
period that enacts an event from the Bible, such as the story
of Adam and Eve, Noah's flood, the crucifixion, and so on. Although
the origins are uncertain, Mary Marshall and other early scholars
like E. K. Chambers (author of The Medieval Stage,
1903) suggested that the plays developed out of the Latin liturgy
of the church, in particular out of the Quem
Quaeritis trope of Easter Day festivals. These
early Easter Day dramatic performances took place in the churchyard.
Later, these plays gradually became secular and used vernacular
languages rather than Latin, and they gradually moved out of
the churchyard and ecclesiastical control, becoming outdoor
performances controlled by the craftsmen in each city, according
to this theory. Other scholars such as V. A. Kolve refute
this idea, however.
In any case, we do know
that these religious plays were staged and performed by secular
audiences. Typically, the various guilds
in each city (such as the Carpenters' Guild, the Butchers' Guild,
and so on) would sponsor and perform one play during the Corpus
Christi festival, competing with each other for the
most elaborate performance. Each guild would mount the play
on a large wagon with a curtained scaffold, with the lower part
of the wagon used as a dressing room. Between forty and fifty
of these wagons (one for each guild) would move from spot to
spot in the city, so that spectators could watch several performances
in a single day. The plays often involved elaborate representations
of heaven and hell, mechanical devices to create "special
effects," and lavish costuming. The dramatizations became
increasingly elaborate, and they show signs of developing psychological
realism. The use of mystery in the name may originate
in either the idea of spiritual mysteries, which were the focus
of each play, or it may result from the Latin word misterium
(a guild). The mystery plays were an important precursor to
plays and morality
plays (see above) in medieval drama, and they set the
stage for the flowering of Renaissance drama that was to come
with Shakespeare. Note that this term should not be confused
with the Victorian and modern mystery
MYSTIC WRITERS: See
discussion under mystics, below.
In the word's most general sense, mystics are religious visionaries
who experience divine insights. In medieval scholarship, the
term "mystics" or "mystic writers" is often
used as a collective term for a group of late fourteenth-century
and early fifteenth-century eremites in England who wrote mystical
works in Middle English and Latin. These include the anchoress
Julian of Norwich, who wrote The Book of Showings; the
illiterate mystic Margery Kempe, who dictated her autobiography
The Book of Margery Kempe to two scribes; Richard Rolle,
the author of "Love is Love that Lasts for Aye";
and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing. On
the continent, other famous mystics include Saint Teresa of
Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, and Saint Francis of Assissi. The
mystic writers are marked by the use of vivid (and sometimes
intense emotional pathos
(in the case of Margery Kempe), paradox
(in the case of Richard Rolle), and an intense desire to verbalize
what is largely a nonverbal experience (in the case of nearly
every mystic). Mystics--regardless of religious background--are
often marked by an experience in which they perceive the universe
as a unity or in which they feel a sense of being one with the
divine. We see signs of this tendency in Julian of Norwich's
vision of Christ's blood, which transforms into raindrops falling
from the side of a roof and then in turn transforms into the
scales on a herring, as if God's physical form were embodied
in the entire universe.
In a more general sense,
the author of the book of Revelation in the Bible (commonly
attributed to John of Patmos), and the poetry of William Blake
are said to be visionary or mystical in nature, though scholars
usually do not place them in the same category as the medieval
mystics. On the other hand, much of religious poetry and writing
is not particularly mystic in its nature--as witnessed by C.
S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters or the poetry of Milton
and Gerard Manley Hopkins, all three of which are profoundly
religious, but which do not necessarily represent a struggle
to verbalize an intense religious vision in the same manner
as a mystic writer.
MYSTOI: The Greek term for mystery cults, see above.
While common English usage often equates "myth" with "falsehood,"
the term slightly differently. A myth is a traditional tale
of deep cultural significance to a people in terms of etiology,
ritual practice, or models of appropriate and inappropriate
behavior. The myth often (but not always) deals with gods,
supernatural beings, or ancestral heroes. The culture creating
or retelling the myth may or may not believe that the myth
refers to literal or factual events,
but it values the mythic narrative regardless of its historical
authenticity for its (conscious or unconscious) insights
into the human condition or the model it provides for cultural behavior. See also folklore, legend, mythography,
The commentary, writings, and interpretations added to myths.
Medieval writers, such as the four anonymous scribes collectively
called the "Vatican Mythographers," would take Greek and Roman
myths and write elaborate Christianized allegories to explain
the meaning of the text. Another example of medieval mythography
is the Ovid moralisée, a retelling of Ovid's Metamorphoses
in which French scribes interpret the legends as Christological
commentary on the New Testament.
A system of stories about the gods, often explicitly religious
in nature, that possibly were once believed to be true by a
specific cultural group, but may no longer be believed as
by their descendents. Like religions everywhere, mythology
often provided etiological
narratives (see above) to help explain why the world
works the way it does, to provide a rationale for customs
observances, to establish set rituals for sacred ceremonies,
and to predict what happens to individuals after death. If
protagonist is a normal human rather than a supernatural being,
the traditional story is usually called a legend
rather than a myth. If the story concerns supernatural beings
who are not deities, but rather spirits, ghosts, fairies,
other creatures, it is usually called a folktale or fairy
tale rather than a myth (see folklore,
below). Samples of myths appear in the writings of Homer,
(1) Approaching the world through poetic narrative and traditional
ritual rather than rational or logical thought. (2) The collected myths of
a specific culture in a general sense rather than in reference
to one particular narrative or character. For
instance, we might refer specifically to the myth of Hercules
fighting the Hydra, the myth of Kali drinking demons' blood,
giant Ullikummis, but we would more generally say these tales
belong to the Greek
mythos, the Hindu mythos, or the Hittite mythos,
respectively. Cf. mythology.
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. 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
und klassischen Epoche.] Trans. John Raffan. Cambridge: Harvard UP,
Catholic University of America
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Deutsch, Babette. Poetry
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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
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Eagleton, Terry. Literary
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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