z: Time and the Mailman

"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:

  • She batted her eyelashes and third.
  • He played for keeps and money.
  • He bought her story and a beer.
  • She entered the data and his room.
  • He flew the coop and the kite.
  • He fell back on his sword and his position of power.
  • She gathered her wits and her knitting.
  • He hid his feelings and the ball.
  • He fished for compliments and trout.
  • He milked the situation and the cow.
  • She stayed his execution and at the hotel.
  • He rang the bell and up her purchases.

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

A few examples from Jim Moskowitz:

  • He stole the show and my wallet.
  • I grew alfalfa and bored.
  • Do you have a cold, or a sister?

A couple of my own:

  • It was curtains for him and the window.
  • She carried a sack of groceries, a child, and on.
  • The journalists covered the assassination and up the conspiracy.
  • He bit the bullet, her hand, and the dust.
  • She bought the 1994 election, an antique cereal bowl, and the farm.

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

  • She killed time and the mailman.
  • She aroused suspicion and men.
  • He drowned his sorrows and his cat.
  • He screwed up the assignment and over his partner.
  • She came up through the ranks, over last night, repeatedly, and to realize the error of her ways.
  • She jumped his bones and over the dog.

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One Response to “z: Time and the Mailman”

  1. Jed

    Just encountered this line in an O. Henry story, “The Man Higher Up”: “The [townspeople] took me by surprise and [my horse] Bill by the bridle…”


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