Definition of Polyptoton

Polyptoton is a device in which there is a repetition of words with the same root for rhetorical effect. For example, the words dictionary, dictation, and contradict all share the same Latin root word of “dict,” which means “say” and thus the following sentence is an example of polyptoton: “Never contradict the dictionary when you’re taking a dictation.” There are thousands of potential polyptoton examples in English. Authors use this device to build on a central theme both in the sound of the language and contextually.

The word polyptoton comes from the Ancient Greek word πολύπτωτος (polúptōtos), which meant “having many cases.” Thus, the original definition of polyptoton hinted at the different cases that a word can have, such as nominative, accusative, and genitive.

Difference Between Polyptoton and Antanaclasis

The literary devices of polyptoton and antanaclasis are very similar because they both involve the repetition of words that are look the same or almost the same. Here are the key differences:

  • Antanaclasis involves the repetition of a word that is spelled exactly the same way (a homograph) but has different meanings; usually these words have different etymological origins. For example, the word “hang” in the following quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
  • Polyptoton includes the repetition of words that have the same etymological origin and also have different meanings, though the difference might be slight. For example, “Live your life.”

Common Examples of Polyptoton

There are many examples of polyptoton in famous speeches, advertising, movies, and music. Here is an example of polyptoton from each of those categories, respectively:

  • “His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars.”—William Faulkner, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, December 1950
  • “Choosy Mothers Choose Jif”—Advertising slogan for Jif peanut butter
  • “The things you own end up owning you.”—Fight Club
  • “Broken bones are stronger for the breaking
    No, the danger’s in the bending
    Those concessions that you never can take back”—Dessa in “Little Mercy” by Doomtree

Significance of Polyptoton in Literature

Authors generally use polyptoton to lead their audiences in a kind of rhetorical argument. When an author explores more than one meaning of the same root word, the repetition serves to strengthen each repetition of that word. The more an audience hears a particular word, or its cousins, the more they will think about the significance of it. This was particularly effective in some religious texts. For example, we can look to the famous line from Matthew, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” This repetition makes the statement easy to remember, but also strengthens Matthew’s argument. We can see similar examples of polyptoton in the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi: “grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; / To be understood as to understand; / To be loved as to love….”

Examples of Polyptoton in Literature

Example #1

TROILUS: The Greeks are strong and skilful to their strength,
Fierce to their skill and to their fierceness valiant;
But I am weaker than a woman’s tear,
Tamer than sleep, fonder than ignorance,
Less valiant than the virgin in the night
And skilless as unpractised infancy.

(Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare)

William Shakespeare wrote many examples of polyptoton in his plays and poems. In this short excerpt from Troilus and Cressida, Troilus repeats “strong” and “strength;” “skilful,” “skill,” and “skilless;” and “fierce” and “fierceness.” Each repetition changes a word with the same etymological origin and, indeed, almost the same meaning from one case to another. For example, “strong” is an adjective while “strength” is the matching noun. Troilus’s repetition of these terms in different ways serves to show his anxiety in just how powerful the Greeks are, and how he feels unmatched to their power.

Example #2

POLONIUS: Madam, I swear I use no art at all.
That he is mad, ’tis true. Tis true, ’tis pity,
And pity ’tis ’tis true—a foolish figure,
But farewell it, for I will use no art.
Mad let us grant him then. And now remains
That we find out the cause of this effect,
Or rather say, the cause of this defect,
For this effect defective comes by cause.
Thus it remains, and the remainder thus.

(Hamlet by William Shakespeare)

This short excerpt from Polonius in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet carries many examples both of simple repetition and of polyptoton. The repetitions of “tis true,” “tis pity,” and “mad” are just that—repetitions. Then we see Polonius’s verbal prowess continue with the polyptoton examples of “defect” and “defective” as well as “remains” and “remainder.” Indeed, “effect” and “defect” are also polyptoton examples because they share the same etymological origin of the Latin suffix “-fect,” which means “to do.” The words are opposite, yet share a common root.

Example #3

Dear heart, I feel with thee the drowsy spell.
My bride to be, my evermore delight,
My own heart’s heart, my ownest own, farewell;

(“Maud; a Monodrama” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s line “My own heart’s heart, my ownest own, farewell;” is one of the most frequently cited examples of polyptoton due to its strong sentiment. He repeats the word “heart” to signify both his own heart and the abstraction of his beloved. In this sense the “heart’s heart” is the person who makes his own life worth living. “Ownest” and “own” is another example of polyptoton that serves to strength the connection between him and his beloved. In showing the sameness of their grammatical presence, Tennyson demonstrates the mutual intertwining of their lives.

Example #4

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

(“Diving Into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich)

In this stanza from Adrienne Rich’s poem “Diving Into the Wreck” we see the repetition of the words “black” and “blacking out” in quick succession. She uses interesting enjambment in this line by separating the word “black” from its context (i.e., the color of the air) and connecting it instead with the example of polyptoton. This has a strong rhetorical effect of highlighting the similarity of these two words, even though they have different meanings. In fact, the way she has written the line “black I am blacking out and yet” carries that slight breathlessness that one would feel while blacking out underwater. Her combination of polyptoton and enjambment makes this particular line very powerful. Note that the repetitions of “the sea” and “power” are not examples of polyptoton because the words have the exact same meaning and function here. However, there are other examples of polyptoton in “blue” and “bluer” and “powerful” and “power.”

Test Your Knowledge of Polyptoton

1. Which of the following statements is the best polyptoton definition?
A. A homograph pair that is repeated with two different meanings.
B. The rhetorical proximity of more than one word with the same etymological background.
C. The repetition of a word that has the same meaning but is spelled in different ways.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: B is the correct answer. A is the definition of antanaclasis.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following pairs of words would not constitute an example of polyptoton?
A. “Read” (verb, present tense) and “read” (verb, past tense)
B. “Genetic” (adverb, from Greek for “origin”) and “genealogy” (noun, from Greek for “descent”)
C. “Wind” (noun, from Latin word ventus, meaning “to blow”) and “wind” (verb, from Old English windan, meaning “to go rapidly”)
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: C is the correct answer. The pairs of words in A and B share an etymological origin.[/spoiler]

3. Which of the following quotes from the eponymous Hamlet from Shakespeare’s tragedy is an example of polyptoton?
A. “Let her not walk i’ th’ sun. Conception is a blessing, but, as your daughter may conceive—”
B. “To be, or not to be, that is the question:”
C. “Get thee to a nunnery, go. Farewell. Or, if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them.”
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: A is the correct answer because of the words “conception and “conceive,” containing the same root. There are examples of repetition in B and C, but that’s all it is—repetition of the exact same word meaning the exact same thing (“to be” in B and “marry” in C).[/spoiler]