Inexpressibility (Rhetoric)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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In rhetoric, inexpressibility refers to a speaker's inability to find or use the appropriate words to describe a situation or relate an experience. Also called the inexpressibility trope or inexpressibility topos.

Inexpressibility may be regarded as one of the "tropes of silence" or as adynaton--a type of hyperbole that emphasizes a subject by stating the impossibility of describing it.

Examples and Observations

  • "Shakespeare himself couldn’t come up with the right words to describe the scene at the Staples Center Thursday night. It was a disaster movie--for the Los Angeles Lakers--playing out before our eyes on TNT. A proud franchise falling in epic fashion at the hands of the former doormat franchise that has existed in the Lakers’ shadow all these years."(Sekou Smith, "Twitter Reacts: The Lakers' Worst Loss Ever . . . and the Clips' Biggest Win Ever." Sekou Smith's Hang Time Blog, March 7, 2014)
  • "Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter."(Goneril in Act One, scene one of The Tragedy of King Lear by William Shakespeare)
  • "I do not err in conceiving that you are interested in details of all that is majestic or beautiful in nature; but how shall I describe to you the scenes by which I am now surrounded? To exhaust the epithets which express the astonishment and the admiration--the very excess of satisfied astonishment, where expectation scarcely acknowledged any boundary, is this, to impress upon your mind the images which fill mine now, even till it overflow?"(Percy Bysshe Shelley in a letter to Thomas Love Peacock, Mont Blanc, July 22, 1816)

Dante's Use of the Inexpressibility Trope

"If I had words grating and crude enough

that really could describe this horrid hole

supporting the converging weight of Hell,

I could squeeze out the juice of my memories

to the last drop. But I don't have these words,

and so I am reluctant to begin."

(Dante Alighieri, Canto 32 of The Divine Comedy: Inferno, trans. by Mark Musa. Indiana University Press, 1971)

"But if my verse would have a defect

When entering into the praise of her,

For that is to blame the weak intellect

And our speech, that does not have the power

Of spelling out all that Love says."

(Dante Alighieri, Convivio [The Banquet], c. 1307, trans. by Albert Spaulding Cook in The Reach of Poetry. Purdue University Press, 1995)

Inexpressibility in the Lyrics of Cat Stevens

"How can I tell you that I love you, I love you

But I can't think of right words to say.

I long to tell you that I'm always thinking of you,

I'm always thinking of you, but my words

Just blow away, just blow away."

(Cat Stevens, "How Can I Tell You." Teaser and the Firecat, 1971)

"There are no words I can use

Because the meaning still leaves for you to choose,

And I couldn't stand to let them be abused, by you."

(Cat Stevens, "The Foreigner Suite." Foreigner, 1973)

Inexpressibility From Homer to Wes Anderson

"You might say The Grand Budapest Hotel is one big example of the device that rhetoricians call the inexpressibility trope. The Greeks knew this figure of speech through Homer: 'I could not relate the multitude [of the Achaeans] nor name them, not if I had ten tongues and ten mouths.' The Jews know it, too, through an ancient part of their liturgy: 'Were our mouths as full of song as the sea, and the joy of our tongues as countless as the waves . . . we still could not give thanks enough.' And, needless to say, Shakespeare knew it, or at least Bottom did: 'The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive nor his heart to report what my dream was.”

"Anderson’s goofy dream is of course closest to Bottom’s version of inexpressibility. With great panache and an almost imperceptible wink, he serves up witty confections of sets, costumes and acting that are as deliberately mismatched to the terrors of this history as is Zero to Gustave. This is the film’s ultimate incongruity, meant to amuse and touch you while keeping Anderson honest about his firsthand ignorance of fascism, war and a half-century of Soviet dreadfulness."

(Stuart Klawans, "Missing Pictures." The Nation, March 31, 2014)

Inexpressibility Topoi

"The root of the topoi to which I have given the above name is 'emphasis upon inability to cope with the subject.' From the time of Homer onwards, there are examples in all ages. In panegyric, the orator 'finds no words' which can fitly praise the person celebrated. This is a standard topos in the eulogy of rulers (basilikos logos). From this beginning the topos already ramifies in Antiquity: 'Homer and Orpheus and others too would fail, did they attempt to praise him.' The Middle Ages, in turn, multiplies the names of famous authors who would be unequal to the subject. Included among the 'inexpressibility topoi' is the author's assurance that he sets down only a small part of what he has to say (pauca e multis)."

(Ernst Robert Curtius, "Poetry and Rhetoric." European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. by Willard Trask. Princeton University Press, 1953)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Inexpressibility (Rhetoric)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Inexpressibility (Rhetoric). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Inexpressibility (Rhetoric)." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).