Definition of Periphrasis

Periphrasis is both a grammatical principle and manner of speaking that uses more words than necessary to evoke a certain meaning. Periphrasis is, at times, beneficial for certain reasons, though is often considered redundant. Some examples of periphrasis are purposeful in order to evade a taboo subject, such as in the case of innuendo and euphemism, or to adorn a sentence in a poetic way. People with aphasia, a language disorder usually caused by brain damage, are sometimes afflicted with a difficulty of coming up with the right words and might employ periphrasis as a technique to get to a certain meaning. This is true as well of many people learning a new language. For example, a person might not know or remember the word for “bee” in a different language and instead say, “a yellow and black thing that makes honey.”

The definition of periphrasis is very similar to that of circumlocution, which also means talking around something by adding more words; the difference is that the meaning is still understandable in an example of periphrasis, whereas circumlocution often obscures the meaning so as to make it indecipherable.

The word periphrasis comes from the Greek word periphrazein, which is made up of of the prefix “peri-” meaning “round about” and “phrazein” meaning “to declare.” A few similar words in English come from the same etymological roots such as “phrase,” “paraphrase,” and “holophrasis.” “Paraphrase” uses the prefix “para-,” meaning “beside, near, resembling,” and the prefix “holo-” means “whole, completely.” Thus, paraphrase means to express something in a way that resembles the original. Holophrasis, meanwhile, is the opposite concept to periphrasis, as it means “to express a complex set of ideas in a single word or fixed phrase.”

Common Examples of Periphrasis

There are many common things we say in English that are unnecessary and do not provide any next grammatical or contextual significance. Here are some examples of periphrastic phrases:

  • In my humble opinion, I think… (redundant)
  • Now, at this point in time… (redundant)
  • The hair of the dog (could say “the dog’s hair”)
  • Answering the call of nature (euphemism and could be shortened to “nature’s call)

Significance of Periphrasis in Literature

Authors might use periphrasis examples intentionally and unintentionally. Unintentional periphrasis is usually a sign of weaker or more amateur writing; professional writers tend towards brevity. However, there are many reasons that an author might choose to use an example of periphrasis intentionally. The author might use it in dialogue to show that a certain character has a roundabout manner of speaking (usually signaling over-politeness, obsequiousness, equivocation, and the like). Poets also tend toward periphrasis in the goal of finding a new way to describe something that is already commonly known so as to make readers think of it in a new way. This can be done through metaphor or simile.

Examples of Periphrasis in Literature

Example #1

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

(“Sonnet 18” by William Shakespeare)

William Shakespeare uses both grammatical periphrasis and a certain circumlocution and redundancy. In the second line we can see that Shakespeare chose the periphrastic construction of “more lovely.” Of course, in English the correct comparative word is “lovelier.” Shakespeare made this choice for the aesthetic purpose of fitting the rhythm of iambic pentameter. There is also periphrasis in the final couplet where Shakespeare writes, “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see.” This is a more complex way of saying, “So long as humans live,” and adds a good deal of poetic beauty to the line, as well as, of course, fitting the meter.

Example #2

‘Under the impression,’ said Mr. Micawber, ‘that your peregrinations in this metropolis have not as yet been extensive, and that you might have some difficulty in penetrating the arcana of the Modern Babylon in the direction of the City Road, — in short,’ said Mr. Micawber, in another burst of confidence, ‘that you might lose yourself — I shall be happy to call this evening, and install you in the knowledge of the nearest way.’

I thanked him with all my heart, for it was friendly in him to offer to take that trouble.

(David Copperfield by Charles Dickens)

This example of periphrasis from Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield is a great characterization of Mr. Micawber. He uses many complex words where simpler ones would do, and is overly polite in offering help.

Example #3

But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.

(“Birches” by Robert Frost)

Robert Frost describes ice in many different ways in the above excerpt from “Birches.” He names ice at the beginning, but then uses metaphorical ways of talking in a roundabout fashion about ice, calling it “crystal shells” and “broken glass.”

Example #4

In a brief statement Friday night, Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge confirmed that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has returned to this country and is active once more.
“It is with great regret that I must confirm that the wizard styling himself Lord—well, you know who I mean—is alive and among us again,” said Fudge, looking tired and flustered as he addressed reporters. “It is with almost equal regret that we report the mass revolt of the dementors of Azkaban, who have shown themselves averse to continuing in the Ministry’s employ. We believe that the dementors are currently taking direction from Lord—Thingy.

(Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling)

There is an excellent periphrastic convention in J. K. Rowling Harry Potter series of referring to Lord Voldemort as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” or “You-Know-Who.” The convention is tiring, as shown in the above excerpt where the character Cornelius Fudge simply wants to call him Lord Voldemort. Instead, he says, “Lord—well, you know who I mean” and “Lord—Thingy.” Periphrasis has an important role here; the idea is that calling Lord Voldemort by name is disrespectful of his great power and should not be taken lightly. This becomes even more important at the end of the series when only Harry Potter and his friends fighting the dark arts dare to call him by name instead of using the periphrasis.

Test Your Knowledge of Periphrasis

1. Which of the following statements is the best periphrasis definition?
A. A single word which can express a great multitude of complexity by itself.
B. A manner of expressing something in a way that resembles an original, but with fewer or simpler words.
C. A way of speaking which uses more words or longer phrasing than is necessary.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Why might an author choose to use a periphrasis example intentionally?
A. To fit the meter or create more poetic beauty in a line.
B. To prove that the author is an amateur.
C. To show that a character using the periphrasis is long-winded.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following quotes from William Shakespeare’s Othello contains an example of periphrasis?


IAGO: I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.


OTHELLO: I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog / And smote him thus.


IAGO: O, beware, my lord, of jealousy! / It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock / The meat it feeds on….

Answer to Question #3 Show

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