Imperial, imperious, imperative

Imperial, imperious, imperative

In Brief

Figure of speech. Professor MacHugh describes Rome as "imperial, imperious, imperative." Later in Aeolus, J. J. O'Molloy recalls John F. Taylor's saying that if anything in marble "of soultransfigured and of soultransfiguring deserves to live," it is Michelangelo's statue of Moses. Both phrasings employ a rhetorical device called polyptoton or paregmenon: using different forms of the same root word in close proximity.

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Paregmenon (puh-REG-muh-nun, from paragein = to bring side by side) is the more general term, referring to the use of any changed forms of a word. Polyptoton (puh-LIP-tuh-ton, from Greek poly- = many + ptosis = [grammatical] case or ptotos = falling) was apparently a subset of the general category for ancient rhetoricians, referring specifically to the use of different case forms of nouns or noun modifiers (adjectives, participles). Since modern English has, with very few exceptions, stopped using cases, this has become a distinction without a difference. In English the two words are now more or less synonymous, and since the early 1900s polyptoton has been used far more frequently.

Polyptoton is often employed in the Bible: "increasing, I will increase your sorrow" (Genesis); "Judge not, lest ye be judged" (Matthew); "we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality" (1 Corinthians). Shakespeare was fond of the device: "With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder" (Richard II); "The Greeks are strong, and skillful to their strength / Fierce to their skill, and to their fierceness valiant" (Troilus and Cressida); "love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover to remove" (sonnet 116). Many moderns too have memorably employed this figure: "By dint of railing at idiots, one runs the risk of becoming idiotic oneself" (Gustave Flaubert); "To be ignorant of one's ignorance is the malady of the ignorant" (Bronson Alcott); "Absolute power corrupts absolutely" (Lord Acton); "The healthy man does not torture others––generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers" (Carl Jung).

Professor MacHugh's variations on "imperial" play with the root sense of empire. The Latin verb imperare means "to command," and the Romans became very good at that. They were "imperious," acting in a domineering fashion toward all the peoples in their orbit. They used "imperative" forms of verbs: Surrender! Submit! Pay homage! Pay tribute! Die! These three words convey the professor's disdain for the Roman empire effectively, varying the meaning slightly while maintaining a single polemical focus. Taylor's "soultransfigured" and "soultransfiguring" are a little more flaccid, less interesting.

The example of paregmenon cited by Gilbert, "towering high on high," is still less prepossessing and probably also wrongly classed, since here the form of the word does not vary. It might possibly be called antanaclasis, the repetition of a word with a new meaning, but if so it would be a very weak example. Seidman identifies "imperial, imperious, imperative" as paregmenon and "soultransfigured and of soultransfiguring" as polyptoton. I cannot see any basis for making such a distinction.

JH 2023
Slide by Gil Briseno. Source: