Heartburn on your arse

Heartburn on your arse

In Brief

Figure of speech. Simon Dedalus responds to the excesses of Dawson's speech with a strained image: "Agonising Christ, wouldn't it give you a heartburn on your arse?" Heartburn is a serviceable metaphor for the discomfort he feels, but the arse is a strange place to locate it. Later, Lenehan uses the word "expectorated" in place of "expected." Both utterances are examples of catachresis, the (sometimes deliberate) misuse of language.

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Catachresis (CAT-uh-CREE-sis) means "misuse" in Greek (kata- = down, wrong + khresthai = to use). It can refer either to choosing the wrong word for a particular context (travesty for tragedy, peak for pique, chronic for severe, disinterested for uninterested) or to using metaphor in a strained or contradictory way. So-called mixed metaphors, ones which mingle two different kinds of comparison, can sometimes be quite effective, but when inept, as in the examples illustrated here, they are a species of catachresis.

But catachresis can itself be deliberate and effective. Two of the three definitions in the American Heritage Dictionary are "Strained use of a word or phrase, as for rhetorical effect" and "A deliberately paradoxical figure of speech." Simon's saying surely meets both of these criteria: he knows where heartburn belongs, but puts it elsewhere for rhetorical effect. Seidman quotes a dismissive definition from Quintilian that the OED repeats verbatim: "abuse or perversion of a trope or metaphor." Pedants may condemn such freedom, but it staves off the entropic force of cliché.

Unlike Seidman, who sees the device in Simon's arresting expression, Gilbert applies it to Myles Crawford's image of Ireland as a snowball: "You and I are the fat in the fire. We haven't got the chance of a snowball in hell." These two sentences do mix metaphors impressively, but it is hard to see the second one as catachrestic. Far from fulfilling Gilbert's definition of the device as "metaphor bold to a degree of impropriety," the image of a snowball in hell, once no doubt powerfully fresh, has become so familiar as to be called almost a cliché.

Quintilian does recognize that the wrong word can sometimes be the right one. While the author of the Ad Herennium treats catachresis as an abuse––"the inexact use of a like or kindred word in place of the precise and proper one"––Quintilian defines such abusio as "the practice of adapting the nearest available term to describe something for which no actual term exists." In other words, when no good word exists the orator may take one which does and adapt it to new uses. Gideon Burton (rhetoric.byu.edu) offers some examples: "The elbow of his nose is disproportionable," or "In his rage at Gertrude, Hamlet nearly became a parricide like his uncle."

JH 2023
Chrysanthe Tan's discussion. Source: twitter.com.
Cartoon by Mike Lester. Source: www.linkedin.com.
Source: dankingsepp.wordpress.com.