An English speaker encountering the Spanish word poliptoton and wanting to know its definition may be puzzled by the fact that the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española defines this rhetorical term as ‘traducción,’ which normally gets translated into English as ‘translation.’ Click on the link to traducción, and you see that the word is used in rhetoric for a ‘figura que consiste en emplear dentro de la cláusula un mismo adjetivo o nombre en distintos casos, géneros o números, o un mismo verbo en distintos modos, tiempos o personas.’

According to the online Manual de Retórica, perhaps the best known example in Spanish is this seguidilla:

No me mires, que miran
que nos miramos;
miremos la manera
de no mirarnos.
No nos miremos
y, cuando no nos miren,
nos miraremos.

(Don’t look at me, because people will see
That we’re looking at each other;
let’s look and see if we can find a way
not to look at each other.
Let’s not look at each other
and, whenever other people aren’t looking at us,
we’ll look at each other.)

The Greeks, who knew nothing of seguidillas but were masters of rhetoric, created the name of this rhetorical device from polus ‘more than one, many,’ and the root pto- ‘to fall.’ As the Greeks saw it, the various forms of a word were different ways in which the word could ‘fall out.’ Compare how Spanish, referring to personal reactions rather than linguistic forms, likewise resorts to its verb for ‘to fall,’ caer: Spanish can say Me cae bien ‘I like it, it agrees with me,’ or Me cae mal and Me cae gordo ‘It disagrees with me, it rubs me the wrong way.’

The Century Dictionary offered this definition of polyptoton, which is how English renders the term: ‘In rhetoric, a figure consisting in the use of different cases or inflections of the same word, or of words of the same immediate derivation, in the same context.’

Now that you know what this rhetorical device is, if you go back and reread the first sentence of this post, you’ll see that you’d already read right through a polyptoton: translated and translation. (You could count definition and defines as well, though those variations are less noticeable because the words are farther apart in the sentence). Another instance in which I purposely resorted to polyptoton was several months ago, when I embedded the phrase heavy heft in the post about gossip.

And let’s not forget serendipity. A few minutes ago, just before I was about to post this article, I came across a polyptoton on the next-to-the-last page of the afterword of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. There he quoted someone quoting (another polyptoton!) sportswriter Red Smith: “Fighters fight.” And all of you, having made it this far in today’s post, can chime in: “And readers read.” To which I say, rhyming with Red Smith: “And writers write.”

(And the repeated use of and at the beginning of several sentences in that last paragraph, as well as at the beginning of this sentence, exemplifies another figure of speech that I discussed in this column a few months ago, anáfora/anaphor.)

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Just in case « Spanish-English Word Connections

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If you encounter an unfamiliar technical term in any of these postings, check the Glossary in the bar across the top of the page.
©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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