What is a Figure of Speech?

Discussing the meaning of “figure of speech”.


Suppose we’re discussing a quote, and I refer to a figure used to embellish an otherwise trite piece of writing. Am I being lazy in not calling it a figure of speech? Or am I applying a figure of speech (synecdoche, perhaps) to the phrase “a figure of speech” to get a shortening?

It may be a bit of both, however, it also looks like figure — meaning tricks of the rhetorical and linguistic trade — was used in that sense first, and that the expression a figure of speech came later. This is what some internet-and-book hopping has thrown up.

First, the linguistics approach: a quick jaunt to the  OED Online.

The word figure has many meanings. The particular sense used in figure of speech is found under number 21, in section V, of the entry for figure, n.

V. In various uses, representing the technical applications of Greek σχῆμα.

21. Rhetoric.

a. Any of the various ‘forms’ of expression, deviating from the normal arrangement or use of words, which are adopted in order to give beauty, variety, or force to a composition; e.g. Aposiopesis, Hyperbole, Metaphor, etc. Also, figure of speech.

Indeed, searching for figure of speech redirects to this entry.

The Greek word σχῆμα refers to form or figure. The earliest of the examples given in the OED under 21.a comes from Chaucer.

c1386    Chaucer Clerk’s Prol. 16    Your termes, your coloures, and your figures, Kepe hem in store, til [etc.].

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About: A Quiver of Quotes

Quiver on what the website aims to achieve.

quote, v. 1

To reproduce or repeat a passage from (a book, author, etc.); to repeat a statement by (a person); to give (a specified person, body, etc.) as the source of a statement

We live by cultural conventions and social norms, by the promises we give and are given, by the rules of nature. When they are broken, we know, because we can quote the particular article of faith that has been broken.

“I said … “

“You said … “

“He said … She said … “

“It said …”

But what makes a statement worth quoting?

That it conveys meaning or information, that it is memorable or ingenious, that it is pretty, pithy, or that it pierces the very heart of some — any — truth.

Continue reading “About: A Quiver of Quotes”