Literary Terms

Abstract Poem: Verse that makes little sense grammatically or syntactically but which relies on auditory patterns to create its meaning or poetic effects.

Acronym: A word formed from the initial letters in a phrase.

Aidos: The Greek term for the great shame felt by a hero after failure.

Allegory: is a literary composition seeking to convey through characters personifying vices, virtues etc a significance deeper than meets the eye. Allegories always lend themselves to more than one interpretations. (Example: John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress).

Alliteration: Two or more words following each other beginning with the same letter e.g., How High His Highness Heaves His Haughty Head.

Allusion: A casual reference in literature to a person, place, event, or another passage of literature, often without explicit identification. Allusions can originate in mythology, biblical references, historical events, legends, geography, or earlier literary works.

Alter Ego: A literary character or narrator who is a thinly disguised representation of the author, poet, or playwright creating a work.

Ambiance: Loosely the term is equivalent to atmosphere or mood, but more specifically, ambiance is the atmosphere or mood of a particular setting or location.

Amphitheater: An open-air theater, especially the unroofed public playhouses. Shakespeare’s Globe and the Rose are two examples.

Anagram (Greek: “writing back or anew”): When the letters or syllables in a name, word or phrase are shuffled together or jumbled to form a new word.

Anecdote: A short narrative account of an amusing, unusual, revealing, or interesting event.

Anti-climax: An abrupt and ludicrous descent from the sublime to the trivial.

Apostrophe: Not to be confused with the punctuation mark, apostrophe is the act of addressing some abstraction or personification that is not physically present.

Archaism: A word, expression, spelling, or phrase that is out of date in the common speech of an era, but still deliberately used by a writer, poet, or playwright for artistic purposes.

Autobiography: A non-fictional account of a person’s life

Ballad: A traditional poem telling a stirring tale generally passed on by word of mouth. In the composing of ballads, stanzas of four iambic lines are employed with the rhyme scheme a b c d.

Beast Fable: A short, simple narrative with speaking animals as characters designed to teach a moral or social truth.

Bibliography: a descriptive list of books or book containing such a list, or study, description or knowledge of books in regard to their authors, subjects, editions and history.

Bourgeoisie (French, “city-dwelling”): The French term bourgeoisie is a noun referring to the non-aristocratic middle-class, while the word bourgeois is the adjective-form. Calling something bourgeois implies that something is middle-class in its tendencies or values.

Burlesque: A work treating a serious subject in a light-hearted manner or ridiculing the work of some other writer.

Catharsis: Catharsis is the name given to the process of purging of the effects of pent-up emotions by bringing them to the surface of consciousness through drama.

Censorship: The act of hiding, removing, altering or destroying copies of art or writing so that general public access to it is partially or completely limited.

Chronicle: A history or a record of events.

Chronology: The order in which events happen, especially when emphasizing a cause-effect relationship in history or in a narrative.

Cliché: A hackneyed or trite phrase that has become overused. Clichés are considered bad writing and bad literature.

Cliffhanger: A melodramatic narrative (especially in films, magazines, or serially published novels) in which each section “ends” at a suspenseful or dramatic moment, ensuring that the audience will watch the next film or read the next installment to find out what happens.

Climax: The high-point in a gradual build-up of ideas, each rising above its predecessor.

Colloquialism: A word or phrase used everyday in plain and relaxed speech, but rarely found in formal writing.

Comedy: An amuzing play with a happy ending e.g., Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

Connotation: The extra tinge or taint of meaning each word carries beyond the minimal, strict definition found in a dictionary.

Copyright: The copyright of any literary or artistic work is vested in the author for the period of his life-time and 50 years following which it passes into the public domain and becomes freely available to any one who wants to make use of it. Under the Copyright Act, copyright subsists in every original literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work and the Copyright of the author is automatically protected.

Couplet: Two lines—the second line immediately following the first— of the same metrical length that end in a rhyme to form a complete unit.

Demagogy: means oratory aimed at swaying popular opinion in a particular direction. It has been said that demagogues seek to attract attention by playing up real or imaginary popular grievances. Therefore, they are the “mob’s lacqueys”.

Dialect: The language of a particular district, class, or group of persons.

Dialogue: The lines spoken by a character or characters in a play, essay, story, or novel, especially a conversation between two characters, or a literary work that takes the form of such a discussion

Drama: A story told through action and speeches of characters with some dynamic action and with some conflict between the characters. The conflict may be outward or external, as it is in comedies or some inner conflict in the soul of a man as in tragedies.

Eclogue: A short poem or short section of a longer poem in the form of a dialogue

El Dorado: fictitious country or city abounding in gold—“the golden land of imagination of the Spanish conquerors of America.” It was believed in the days of early Spanish explorers that somewhere on the South American Continent there was a country abounding in gold and precious stones.

The term is still used for any place of rich promise.

Elegy: is a poem of lamentation for the dead or for some past glory.

Epic: is a long narrative poem telling of the splendid deeds of heroes and heroines, frequently concerned with war. (Examples: Mahabharata, Iliad).

Epigram: is a witty expression which is also brief and pithy.

Epilogue: A conclusion added to a literary work such as a novel, play, or long poem.

Epithet: A short, poetic nickname.

Errata: Errors or mistakes in a printed text.

Essay: A short prose composition presenting the author’s reflections on a subject of his choice.

Euphemism: Using a mild or gentle phrase instead of a blunt, embarrassing, or painful one.

Existentialism: A twentieth-century philosophy arguing that ethical human beings are in a sense cursed with absolute free will in a purposeless universe. Therefore, individuals must fashion their own sense of meaning in life instead of relying thoughtlessly on religious, political, and social conventions.

Fable: A brief story constructed to bring out a lesson or moral.

Flashback: A method of narration in which present action is temporarily interrupted so that the reader can witness past events—usually in the form of a character’s memories, dreams, narration, or even authorial commentary.

Folklore: Sayings, verbal compositions, stories, and social rituals passed along by word of mouth rather than written down in a text.

Genre: A type or category of literature or film marked by certain shared features or conventions.

Hymn: A religious song consisting of one or more repeating rhythmical stanzas.

Hyperbole: An expression deliberately employing exaggeration for the sake of effect e.g. “tons of money”.

Index: In common parlance, an index is a collection of topics, names, or chapter subjects arranged by alphabetical order in the back of a book.

Innuendo: An oblique expression hinting at something, but not openly stating it e.g., “The only thing he can do is to grow hair.”

Irony: saying something of which exactly the opposite is meant.

Jargon: Potentially confusing words and phrases used in an occupation, trade, or field of study.

Juxtaposition: The arrangement of two or more ideas, characters, actions, settings, phrases, or words side-by-side or in similar narrative moments for the purpose of comparison, contrast, rhetorical effect, suspense, or character development.

Leit-motif: In literature this term refers to an object, animal, phrase, or other thing loosely associated with a character, a setting, or event.

Lexicon: A fancy term scholars use when most people would simply say dictionary, i.e., a complete list of words and their definitions.

Lullaby: A song written for children, especially a calming one designed to help an infant go to sleep.

Lyric: A poem with song-like qualities. The original connotation of the word was a song meant to be sung to the accompaniment of a lyre.

Malapropism: An inaccuracy in vocabulary induced by accidental similarity in sound.

Manuscript: A text written by hand (or typed), as opposed to one printed with a printing press.

Melodrama: A play which embodies a deliberate appeal to the emotions, using sensation and violence for their own sake—usually an inferior kind of drama.

Metaphor: is used to emphasize similarity by speaking of one thing as another, rather than comparing the two as in a smile.

Metaphor, Mixed: Use of two or more inconsistent metaphors

simultaneously, e.g., “The cat is out of the bag, but I shall nip it in the bud.”

Mysticism: the habit or tendency of religious thought and feeling of those who seek direct communion with God or the Divine.

Narration, Narrative: Narration is the act of telling a sequence of events, often in chronological order. Alternatively, the term refers to any story, whether in prose or verse, involving events, characters, and what the characters say and do. A narrative is likewise the story or account itself.

Novel: is a lengthy story told in prose in narrative form, highlighting character and incidents. Some years ago, writers like James Joyce and Birginia Woolf wrote novels in which the mind’s response to events and its reflections were more important than the incidents. Such novels have been described as “stream of consciousness” novels.

Ode: A lyric poem, lofty in feeling and style and usually in the form of an address e.g., Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”.

Oxymoron (plural oxymora, also called paradox): Using contradiction in a manner that oddly makes sense on a deeper level.

Paradox: A statement which at first sight seems self-contradictory e.g., “The child is father of the man”.

Paraphrase: A brief restatement in one’s own words of all or part of a literary or critical work, as opposed to quotation, in which one reproduces all or part of a literary or critical work word-for-word, exactly.

Parody: is literary caricature which while purporting to imitate the theme or style of an author deliberately magnifies his faults so that they look ridiculous.

Pastoral: An artistic composition dealing with the life of shepherds or with a simple, rural existence.

Pathos: A writer or speaker’s attempt to inspire an emotional reaction in an audience—usually a deep feeling of suffering, but sometimes joy, pride, anger, humor, patriotism, or any of a dozen other emotions.

Pen Name (Pseudonym): A fictitious name that a writer employs to conceal his or her identity. For example, Samuel Clemens used the pen name “Mark Twain”.

Plagiarism: Accidental or intentional intellectual theft in which a writer, poet, artist, scholar, or student steals an original idea, phrase, or section of writing from someone else and presents this material as his or her own work without indicating the source via appropriate explanation or citation.

Poetry: A variable literary genre characterized by rhythmical patterns of language.

Poetic Justice: This is a literary expression used usually in estimating an author’s literary work, where the author portrays characters in a manner that ideal administration of reward and punishment are given in the end for the deserving characters. Marlow’s Edward II is an example of poetic justice.

Pornography: means writing, painting or photography describing or depicting sex in such a manner that it excites impressionable minds.

Prose: Any material that is not written in a regular meter like poetry.

Pulp Fiction: Mass market novels printed cheaply and intended for a general audience.

Pun: A play on two words similar in sound but different in meaning.

Relic: The physical remains of a saint or biblical figure, or an object closely associated with a saint, biblical figure, or a miracle.

Rhetoric: The art of using language; principles of eloquence and effective communication. Sometimes the word is also used to refer to a showy and laboured style of composition in prose.

Rubaiyat: An Arabic term meaning a quatrain, or four-line stanza.

Saga: Sagas are Scandinavian and Icelandic prose narratives about famous historical heroes, notable families, or the exploits of kings and warriors.

Sarcasm: The act of ostensibly saying one thing but meaning another.

Satire: Writing that holds up to ridicule the vices and follies of its age. (Example: G.B. Shaw’s Arms and the Man, a satire on war).

Simile: Comparison bringing out similarity between two things otherwise dis-similar.

Spoof: A comic piece of film or literature that ostensibly presents itself as a “genre” piece, but actually pokes fun at the clichés or conventions of the genre through imitative satire.

Stereotype: A character who is so ordinary or unoriginal that the character seems like an oversimplified representation of a type, gender, class, religious group, or occupation.

Stoic: a person who is indifferent to pleasure or pain, having austere impassivity and limited wants.

Tag: Catch-phrases or character traits that a fiction writer uses repeatedly with a character.

Tenor: In common usage, tenor refers to the course of thought, meaning or emotion in anything written or spoken.

Theme: A central idea or statement that unifies and controls an entire literary work.

Transferred Epithet: An adjective or adverb separated from the word which it properly qualifies to some other word in the sentence to lend a particular type of emphasis e.g., “Sausages cooked in a few reluctant drops of oil.”

Trilogy: A group of three literary works that together compose a larger narrative.

Utopia: The term is used for one who imagines or believes in a Utopia; one who advocates impracticable reforms or one who expects an impossible state of perfection in society. Utopia was the imaginary island of Sir Thomas Moore’s ideal state where perfect conditions of life and government existed; an imaginary state of ideal perfection.

Variorum: A variorum edition is any published version of an author’s work that contains notes and comments by a number of scholars and critics.

Vernacular: The everyday or common language of a geographic area or the native language of commoners in a country as opposed to a prestigious dead language maintained artificially in schools or in literary texts.

Wit: In modern vernacular, the word refers to elements in a literary work designed to make the audience laugh or feel amused.

Yellow Journalism: Any newspaper giving sensational news or features with lavish use of morally objectionable pictures or pseudo-scientific articles is said to be indulging in “yellow journalism”.

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