Synathroesmus: When Words Pile Up

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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Synathroesmus is a rhetorical term for the piling up of words (usually adjectives), often in the spirit of invective. It is also known as congeries, accumulatio, and seriation. Synathroesmus can be found in William Shakespeare's play, "Macbeth":

"Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious,
Loyal and neutral, in a moment?"

Charles Dickens also used the rhetorical device when describing Ebenezer Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol":

"He was a gasping, wheezing, clutching, covetous old man."

Here, Shakespeare and Dickens use synathroesmus artfully, adding context to the content and a decided rhythm to the poetical lines. In other cases, as with adjectives in general, it can be easy to overuse the device in a way that disorients readers.

Definition and Origin

Synathroesmus has been used since at least the time of Shakespeare. Brigham Young University defines the term as: "The conglomeration of many words and expressions either with similar meaning" and "A gathering together of things scattered throughout a speech." This makes sense when you look at the word's Greek root word, synathroismos, meaning "collection."

A collection of like terms is intended to create an effect in writing that emphasizes or enlarges the description of a person, place, or thing, in order to draw a picture for the reader. Dickens used synathroesmus in this way in another novel, "Nicholas Nickleby," when he described a character in the following way:

"He's a proud, haughty, consequential, turned-up-nose peacock."

Dickens might have simply said, "He's a stuck-up person," but he used this rhetorical technique to really get the reader to dislike the character.

How to Use

One danger an author can fall into is the overuse of synathroesmus. In literature, poetry, and other texts, an author tries to persuade their implied audience of their point of view and continue reading. Too much synathroesmus can have the opposite intended effect. In an 1882 letter, English critic John Ruskin described Richard Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg" as follows:

"Of all the bete, clumsy, blundering, boggling, baboon-blooded stuff I ever saw on the human stage, that thing last night beat—as far as the story and acting went—and of all the affected, sapless, soulless, beginningless, endless, topless, bottomless, topsyturviest, tuneless, scrannelpipiest—tongs and boniest—doggerel of sounds I ever endured the deadliness of, that eternity of nothing was the deadliest, as far as its sound went."

The reader probably got the point, but Ruskin might have done better to simply say the stage play was terrible. Compare Ruskin's review to Stephen Crane's use of synathroesmus in "The "Blue Hotel":

"One viewed the existence of man then as a marvel, and conceded a glamour of wonder to these lice which were caused to cling to a whirling, fire-smote, ice-locked, disease-stricken, space-lost bulb."

The use of the rhetorical device here is enough to make your skin crawl while at the same time motivating you to want to keep reading.

Compare this again to PepsiCo's use of synathroesmus in a Pepsi Cola commercial, which some found effective and others found tiresome:

"Lipsmackin' thirstquenchin' acetastin' motivatin' goodbuzzin' cooltalkin' highwalkin' fastlivin' evergivin' coolfizzin' Pepsi."

CreativePool, a London internet marketing service, considers this an extremely creative and effective use of synathroesmus, calling it "epic" and claiming that it "blew everything else out of the water" on its website.

Breathing Life Into Things

An author can also use synathroesmus to describe inanimate objects in a way that brings them to life. In "The Crying of Lot 49," Thomas Pynchon used the technique to describe customers bringing their old vehicles to a car lot to trade in, making commentary on life itself with a metaphor:

" ... and when the cars were swept out you had to look at the actual residue of these lives, and there was no way of telling what things had been truly refused (when so little he supposed came by that out of fear most of it had to be taken and kept) and what had simply (perhaps tragically) been lost: clipped coupons promising savings of 5 or 10¢, trading stamps, pink flyers advertising specials at the market, butts, tooth-shy combs, help-wanted ads, Yellow Pages torn from the phone book, rags of old underwear or dresses that already were period costumes, for wiping your own breath off the inside of a windshield with so you could see whatever it was, a movie, a woman or car you coveted, a cop who might pull you over just for drill, all the bits and pieces coated uniformly, like a salad of despair, in a grey dressing of ash, condensed exhaust, dust, body wastes—it nauseated him to look, but he had to look."

This narrator uses the contents of cars to paint a vivid picture of poverty. Used effectively, synathroesmus can help the reader really see, feel, taste, and experience the thing being described or get a complete sense of the person being talked about. You might describe synathroesmus as using adjectives on hyperdrive.


  • Crane, Stephen, and Jean-Luc Defromont. Blue Hotel. Liana Levi, 2003.
  • Cuddon, J. A., et al. A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. John Wiley & Sons, 2013.
  • Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. London, 1872.
  • Dickens, Charles. Nicholas Nickleby. Dover Publications, 2018.
  • Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. Harper Perennial, 2014.
  • Ruskin, John. Letter to Georgina Burne-Jones, 1882.
  • "Synathroesmus."
  • The Art of the Slogan. Dave Trott, Lipsmakin Pepsi and Emperor Rosko.” The Global Creative Industry Network,
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Synathroesmus: When Words Pile Up." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Synathroesmus: When Words Pile Up. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Synathroesmus: When Words Pile Up." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).