Definition of Antanaclasis

Antanaclasis is to repeat a word or phrase but with a different meaning than in the first case. Antanaclasis is often used humorously, and is found in many pun examples. For example, at the signing of the United States Declaration of Independence Ben Franklin is quoted as having said, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” In this case, Franklin repeats the word “hang” with two separate meanings: in the first, “hang” is a phrasal verb to mean to stay together and in the second it is the verb meaning to be killed.

The word antanaclasis comes from the Greek word ἀντανάκλασις (antanáklasis), in which it means “reflection.”

Common Examples of Antanaclasis

There are many examples of antanaclasis in common puns and famous sayings, such as in the following:

  • Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.
  • In America, you can always find a party. In Soviet Russia, Party always find you!
  • “If you aren’t fired with enthusiasm, you will be fired, with enthusiasm.”—Vince Lombardi, American football coach
  • “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!”—Jay-Z

Antanaclasis can also be used in advertising slogans to help make them memorable, such as in these examples:

  • “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good.”—Vidal Sassoon hairdresser
  • “Cats like Felix like Felix.”—Felix cat food (with a mascot of a cat named Felix)
  • “The long cigarette that’s long on flavor.”—Pall Mall cigarettes
  • “People on the go . . . go for Coke.”—Coca Cola

There is also a famous example of antanaclasis in English created by linguists: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. This sentence hinges on the fact that there are three meanings of buffalo in this sentence: the animal, the city in New York, and the verb meaning to intimidate. Thus, the sentence means that bison from New York who are intimidated by other bison from New York go on to intimidate still other bison from New York. Clearly, the sentence is relatively nonsensical, and yet it is quite interesting that English is able to produce such convoluted antanaclasis examples.

Significance of Antanaclasis in Literature

The definition of antanaclasis was developed in the 1600s, but it had been used as a literary device for thousands of years. The Roman philosopher Cicero cleverly used many examples of antanaclasis in his work De Oratore, in which he describes the ideal orator. His own command of figures of speech and literary devices helps to persuade his audience that he indeed should know what makes a good orator. Several other authors have used examples of antanaclasis to show their wit. William Shakespeare in particular used many famous antanaclasis examples, as we will see below. The main function of antanaclasis is to show the author’s facility with language.

Examples of Antanaclasis in Literature

Example #1

Quare non sibi eum disertum qui id non
faceret videri sed improbum, qui faceret.

(De Oratore by Cicero)

This is a short example of an antanaclasis that Cicero used in this text De Oratore. He repeats the word “faceret” in this excerpt; in the first case the word stands in for a word that would be more common at the time, ambularet, and in the second case it means “to furnish.” Cicero used the more unusual definition of the word first in order to create the clever wordplay.

Example #2

HAMLET: There’s another. Why may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillities, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks? Why does he suffer this rude knave now to knock him about the sconce with a dirty shovel and will not tell him of his action of battery? Hum! This fellow might be in ’s time a great buyer of land, with his statutes, his recognizances, his fines, his double vouchers, his recoveries. Is this the fine of his fines and the recovery of his recoveries, to have his fine pate full of fine dirt? Will his vouchers vouch him no more of his purchases, and double ones too, than the length and breadth of a pair of indentures? The very conveyances of his lands will hardly lie in this box, and must the inheritor himself have no more, ha?

(Hamlet by William Shakespeare)

Of all of William Shakespeare’s character, Hamlet is known to be one of the most skillful with language. In the above monologue, Hamlet uses a few examples of antanaclasis. He repeats the words “fine” and “recovery” in ways that change the meanings. In fact, Hamlet uses the word “fine” in four specific ways: debts owed, a deed of ownership, the gentleness of his head, and the texture of the dirt.

Example #3

OTHELLO: It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,–
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!–
It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light:

(Othello by William Shakespeare)

In William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Othello is contemplating murdering his wife, Desdemona. He does not want to “shed her blood” or “scar that whiter skin of hers” and plans to smother her in the dark. Therefore, he says he will first “put out the light,” i.e., make sure that the room is dark, and then he will again “put out the light”—this time it’s a euphemism for killing his wife.

Example #4

PISTOL: Doth Fortune play the huswife with me now?
News have I, that my Nell is dead i’ the spital
Of malady of France;
And there my rendezvous is quite cut off.
Old I do wax; and from my weary limbs
Honour is cudgelled. Well, bawd I’ll turn,
And something lean to cutpurse of quick hand.
To England will I steal, and there I’ll steal:
And patches will I get unto these cudgell’d scars,
And swear I got them in the Gallia wars.

(Henry V by William Shakespeare)

William Shakespeare uses a quick and clever antanaclasis example in the above speech by Pistol in Henry V. Pistol is planning to leave France for England, and thus the first time he says “steal” he means to go in secret. In the repetition of “steal,” Pistol is using the more common definition, which is to rob or thieve.

Example #5

Death, tho I see him not, is near
And grudges me my eightieth year.
Now I would give him all these last
For one that fifty have run past.
Ah! He strikes all things, all alike,
But bargains: those he will not strike.

(“Age” by Walter Savage Landor)

In this short poem, contemporary poet Walter Savage Landor uses a nice example of antanaclasis in his repetition of the word strike. He uses the word “strike” first to signify that death hits everything in its path, but in the second case he uses the word “strike” idiomatically to join with “bargain.” Thus the meaning of this poem is that due to the fact that death will take down everything eventually, “he” will not make any bargains.

Test Your Knowledge of Antanaclasis

1. Which of the following statements is the best antanaclasis definition?
A. The repetition of a word or phrase where it has a different definition the second time it is used.
B. A figure of speech in which words or clauses from the first half of a sentence are repeated in the second half of the sentence in reverse order.
C. A form of repetition in which the last word of one clause or sentence is repeated as the first word of the following clause or sentence.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Why might an author use an antanaclasis example?
A. To repeat something to reinforce its importance.
B. To show how clever he or she is with language.
C. To confuse the reader.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following quotes from William Shakespeare contains an example of antanaclasis?

KING HENRY V: We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.


ALL WITCHES: Fair is foul and foul is fair
Hover through the fog and filthy air.


POLONIUS: Tender yourself more dearly,
Or—not to crack the wind of the poor phrase,
Running it thus—you’ll tender me a fool.

Answer to Question #3 Show

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