Bill Long 12/14/04
I like the picture that this word suggests. You really have to know Greek pretty well to know that there is even a picture behind the word, but I will make it clear now. Everyone knows that "poly" means "many," but few know that "ptoton" comes from "ptosis," which itself comes from the Greek verb meaning "to fall." So, there is something about "many falls" in polyptoton that bears examination.
It works like this. Greek is an inflected language, meaning that verbs have persons and nouns/adjectives have cases. When you learn a classical language, you generally learn the "endings" of a noun in the various cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, for example). The non-nominative cases, as it were, "fall off" from the nominative. I imagine a picture where the nominative as at the top of a cliff, with the accusative (or ablative in Latin) at the bottom, and then you just "fall" from the nominative to the others as you "decline" the noun/adjective. Thus, polyptoton really has to do with "many case endings" rather than many "falls," taken literally.
But English has no case endings with nouns/adjectives. So, is the word useful in English? Very. The OED defines polyptoton as follows: "a rhetorical figure consisting in the repetition of a word in different cases or inflexions in the same sentence." A word that "hath many cases" is a polyptote. Thus, we might give the first example of the phenomenon as follows: "Polyptoton implies the use of a polyptote." Enough cuteness, however. Let's see the concept at work.
Puttenham on Polyptoton/Tranlacer
I usually like to start with George Puttenham's 1589 The Art of English Poesie. Along with Peacham's 1577 The Garden of Eloquence, Puttenham wrote the earliest comprehensive handbook of rhetorical terms in English. However, since his audience was genteel society, mostly refined females, Puttenham decided to eliminate the harsh and unfamiliar-sounding Latin or Greek terms and come up with English equivalents. Thus, he calls polyptoton "tranlacer: which is when ye turne and tranlace a word into many sundry shapes as the Tailor doth his garment...." (Poesie, p. 170).
Puttenham gives the following poetic example:
"who lives in love his life is full of feares,/ To lose his love, livelode or libertie/ But lively spirites that young and recklesse be,/ Thinke that there is no living like to theirs."
He comments: "Here ye see how in the former rime this word life is translaced into live, living, lively, livelode..." Thus, we see that polyptoton alters the form of a word in order to enrich the rhetorical effect of a sentence. It shows cleverness, to be sure, but it also suggests that the word that "falls" into several different "cases" is a multi-faceted word. I think of polyptoton in a gemological way--that is, just as you can often hold a gemstone up to the light from different angles and see the most impressive color-change in the stone, so you can hold up significant words to the "light" by polyptoton and see their "shimmering" effect.
The Bible and Shakespeare
These two most powerful sources of the English literary imagination abundantly abound in polyptoton. Two biblical usages immediately come to mind. When Samson was in his wild and crazy days, he went to a festival and proposed a riddle to the attendees. Though the literary and theological issues suggested by Judges 14 are immense, what arrests my attention is the first line of Samson's riddle: "Out of the eater came something to eat.... (Jud. 14:14)." The "solution" to the riddle will be the carcass of the lion he has just slain, but no one yet knows it. When his wife coaxes the answer out of him, Samson becomes enraged and slays a bunch of people, after the "Spirit of the Lord" comes upon him. But, polyptoton gets things going.
Likewise, the Apostle Paul knows how to use (or at least quote) polyptoton. In writing to the Corinthians, he reflects on the value and limitations of human wisdom vis-a-vis the wisdom of God as shown in the cross of Christ. He says the "message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (I Cor. 1:18)." Then comes the polyptoton,
"I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart (v. 19)."
The wise have their wisdom, which will be destroyed, and the discerning have their discernment, which will be thwarted.
Finally, an example from Shakespeare will finish this essay. When the aged John of Gaunt is about to launch into one of Shakespeare's most vivid and powerful descriptions of the glory of England ("This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,/ This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars....." Richard II, 2.1.40-41), he first mentions how he feels he is a prophet "new-inspired," who will foretell the future. How does he foretell it? By using a well-chosen polyptoton to get him going.
"With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder..." (2.1.37)
Other examples of polyptoton abound. Winston Churchill, one of the best prose sylists of English of the last generation, wrote about the government of Neville Chamberlain: "So they go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent (quoted in Lanham, 2d Ed., p. 117)." Though not every antithesis here is an example of polyptoton, the combination of these two figures give his prose a pungency, power, immediacy and vibrancy to which we should all aspire.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long