Words & Stuff

z: Time and the Mailman

(29 June 1997)

"Zeugma" is one of my favorite words. It would probably be my very favorite word if only it were pronounced /'zOig m@/ (as I assumed when I first saw it) instead of /'zug m@/, a pronunciation that seems boring compared to the spelling. (For a pronunciation key, see column k or the ASCII IPA page.)

The best thing about the word, however, is neither its pronunciation nor its spelling, but its meaning. It derives from Latin and Greek words having to do with joining; it refers to using a single occurrence of a verb to have multiple meanings and multiple objects, all in the same sentence. (The overloaded verb is often being used in an idiomatic or metaphorical sense as well as a literal one.) For instance, the sentence "He played first base, second fiddle, and 'Three Blind Mice'" provides three rather different uses of the verb "to play."

I'm uncertain what use people originally had for the term "zeugma," other than describing mistakes made by people unfamiliar with English (and possibly providing a name for an ancient city that spanned the Euphrates river). These days I use the term to discuss intentional instances, created for humorous effect:

(All of the above from Michael Bernstein, with a couple of modifications by me.)

A few examples from Jim Moskowitz:

A couple of my own:

And finally, a few examples slightly less suited for polite company, from someone who prefers to remain anonymous:


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Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>