"What is a Zeugma?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers

View the full series: The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms

What is a Zeugma? (Transcript)

By Raymond Malewitz

As we learned from Professor Betjemann’s figurative language video, words can convey both literal and figurative meanings.  When I say, “I held the door,” that means I was literally holding onto a door to keep it open for someone.  When I say, “I held my breath,” that doesn’t mean I’m holding my breath in my hands—I’ve simply stopped breathing for a moment.

Things get confusing—and interesting—when a word suddenly switches between two different meanings in the same sentence. Consider this example from Alanis Morrisette’s song “Head over Feet,” in which the speaker describes the person whom she adores:

“You are the bearer of

Unconditional things

You held your breath and the door for me”

In the last line of the quotation, Morrisette asks her listeners to quickly switch between two different meanings of the same word—held—within the same sentence. This literary device is called a “zeugma,” from the ancient Greek and Latin words for yoking together. As this word origin suggests, zeugmas connect two different meanings of the same word together, setting them side-by-side to surprise, delight, or confuse audiences.

Zeugma is a funny sounding word, and it is similar to another funny sounding word, “antanaclasis,” which describes clever wordplay in which the same word is repeated twice with different meanings.  When I say “Time flies like an arrow.  Fruit flies like a banana,” I’m using antanaclasis. In the first sentence, flies is a verb (time flies).  In the second sentence, it is a noun (fruit flies—they like bananas).

This type of literary device differs from Morrisette’s zeugma, because with zeugmas, the word that is changing meaning occurs only once in the line.  For this reason, zeugmas often make greater demands upon a listener, who must work a bit harder to reconcile the first meaning of the word with the second meaning.

In “Head over Feet,” once we’ve figured out the zeugma, we can see how its two elements complement each other—the person she describes is both passionate (he holds his breath in her presence) and a gentleman (he holds the door). But zeugmas can also create tension between the two meanings for comedic or dramatic effect.

A good example of this kind of zeugma occurs in Tim O’Brien’s short story “The Things They Carried.” The story revolves around a group of soldiers in the Vietnam War who struggle to process the death of a member of their troop—a man named Ted Lavender.  One of the peculiar features of this story is that it is told in a maddeningly repetitive way—the narrator will often interrupt the narrative to deliver exhaustive lists of the weapons, communication devices, articles of clothing, and other things that each soldier carries on their missions, along with the precise weight of each object. These lists occur so often in the story that first-time readers often struggle to find anything in it that looks like a plot.

Mercifully, this mania for listing begins to change about a quarter of the way through the story, and this shift is marked by an intriguing zeugma.  Here’s the passage:

“As a first lieutenant and platoon leader, Jimmy Cross carried a compass, maps, code books, binoculars, and a .45-caliber pistol that weighed 2.9 pounds fully loaded. He carried a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men.”

The first six elements that Jimmy Cross carries give you a sense of the crazy repetition in the story. But something strange happens in the last sentence.  Clearly, Cross does not “carry” responsibility in the same way that he carries a strobe light, and for this reason, the final sentence can be understood as a zeugma.

So what are we to do with this literary device?  O’Brien’s narrator is asking us here not only to recognize the different uses of the term “carry” but also to consider how these different kinds of carrying are related to one another.

When we try to answer this question, O’Brien’s story begins to get interesting, as the things that the soldiers carry begin to change from physical objects into immaterial things, and when they do, this change is often represented through zeugmas.  Here’s an example of what I mean:

“They all carried fragmentation grenades—14 ounces each. They all carried at least one M-18 colored smoke grenade—24 ounces. Some carried CS or tear gas grenades. Some carried white phosphorus grenades. They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried. ”

O’Brien’s earlier zeugma prepares us to understand the soldiers’ obsessive cataloging of objects as attempts to manage the burden of all the other metaphysical things they carry with them. Because they cannot make sense of Ted Lavender’s death or free themselves of the guilt and fear that stems from it, they frantically look for things in the world that they can control—for things they can carry that have a measurable weight.

O’Brien’s many zeugmas in this story call our attention to this coping mechanism, showing us how his soldiers yoke together their weapons and their grief, their armor and their fear, during the terrible conditions of war.

Further Resources for Teachers

Douglas Adams' zany preface to his Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, entitled "A Guide to the Guide," offers some funny examples of zeugmas. For a more subtle example, see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (p. 127). In addition to the O'Brien example, students might usefully compare the different tones or effects that these other zeugmas convey to readers.