Traductio: Rhetorical Repetition

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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Traductio is a rhetorical term (or figure of speech) for the repetition of a word or phrase in the same sentence. The term, which comes from the Latin "transference," is also known as "transplacement." Traductio is defined in "The Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms" as "the use of the same word in different connotations or a balancing of homonyms." Traductio is sometimes used as a form of wordplay or emphasis.

In "The Garden of Eloquence," Henry Peacham defines traductio and explains its purpose as "a forme of speech which repeateth one word often times in one sentence, making the oration more pleasant to the eare." He compares the effect of the device to the "pleasant repetitions and divisions" of music, noting that the aim of traductio is to "garnish the sentence with oft repetition, or to note well the importance of the word repeated."

Definition and Origin

The concept of "traductio" can be traced back at least 2,000 years. "Rhetorica ad Herennium," a Latin text written in 90 B.C., explained the meaning and use of the rhetorical device as follows:

"Transplacement (traductio) makes it possible for the same word to be frequently reintroduced, not only without offense to good taste, but even so as to render the style more elegant. To this kind of figure also belongs that which occurs when the same word is used first in one function and then in another."

In this passage from the ancient textbook, translated by Harry Caplan in 1954, the author describes traductio as a stylistic device that comprises a word being used first with a specific meaning and then again with an entirely different meaning. Traductio can also use a word twice with the same meaning.

Traductio in Literature

Since its origins, authors have used traductio in literature to emphasize a particular point. The Bible uses the rhetorical device in this way. The Gospel of John (1:1) contains the following sentence:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

It's unlikely that in this religious text there is anything more important than the word of God, and for that reason, "word" is used not twice but three times to emphasize its importance (and it is capitalized). In the first use, "Word" means the commandments from God; in the second, it is a part of God; and in the third, "Word" is a synonym for God.

Other authors use traductio for dramatic effect to highlight a book's message. Theodor Seuss Geisel—also known as Dr. Seuss—did this in the children's book "Horton Hears a Who!" in 1954:

"A person's a person, no matter how small!"

The famed children's writer E.B. White also used traductio in his 1952 book "Charlotte's Web":

"When she waded into the brook, Wilbur waded in with her. He found the water quite cold—too cold for his liking."

The "she" in this case is Fern, the protagonist of the book, who works with a spider named Charlotte to save the life of a pig named Wilbur. Traductio is used with the word "waded" to emphasize the kinship and companionship that developed between Fern and Wilbur. And "cold" is used a bit differently: to make the reader truly feel the chill of the water.

Traductio in Poetry

Poetry presents just as rich a canvas for the use of traductio as literature. John Updike, who was most famous for his novels including the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Rabbit is Rich," also wrote poetry. In his 1993 poem "Daughter," published in his book "Collected Poems: 1953-1993," Updike included this stanza:

"I was awakened from a dream,
a dream entwined with cats,
by a cat's close presence."

Here, Updike uses the term "dream" twice, first to explain the state in which he rested initially, then to describe the nature of that "dream." He then adds a second use of traductio, this time using the term "cats"—first to describe the dream and then to describe the physical presence of the animal, perhaps a real pet. Centuries before Updike, Alexander Pope used traductio in the poem "The Rape of the Lock" in 1714:

"Yet graceful Ease, and Sweetness void of Pride,
Might hide her Faults, if Belles had Faults to hide."

In this stanza, Pope uses the terms "hide" and "faults" when describing a "Belle," a beautiful woman. He does this to imply that she is either virtuous and possibly without faults or that she is hiding her faults beneath sweetness and grace.

Traductio in Revolution

Traductio is not limited to literature and poetry. The U.S. Revolution certainly produced its share of famous quotes, such as Patrick Henry's ringing words at the Second Virginia Convention:

"Give me Liberty or give me death!"

This quote spoke to the passionate desire of colonists to achieve freedom by separating from the mother country, Britain. A statement uttered by Benjamin Franklin at the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 has also had a lasting effect on history:

"We must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."

This is also a great example of how traductio can be used to repeat a word twice for emphasis but with different meanings. "Hang" in the first use means to unite or stay unified; "hang" in the second refers to execution by hanging. What the colonists were doing at the time was considered treason against the Crown and the punishment for them would have been certain death if caught.

Traductio in Religion

Traductio is common in religious speech and writing. The Bible uses traductio to convey to readers the gravity of different commandments, and traductio is often used as a type of chanting by religious leaders to capture an audience's attention and engage them. Onwuchekwa Jemie explains this use of traductio in "Yo Mama!: New Raps, Toasts, Dozens, Jokes, and Children's Rhymes From Urban Black America":

"The preacher makes generous use of the technique of repetition. When it is humdrum or inept, repetition will put the congregation to sleep; but when done with poetry and passion it will keep them wide awake and clapping. The preacher may make a simple statement: 'Sometimes all we need is a little talk with Jesus.' And the congregation responds: 'Go on and talk to him.' Repeat: 'I said we need to talk, we need to talk, we need to talk, talk, to have a little talk, with Jesus.' And the members will answer. If this repetition should approach the sound of music, he can half-sing and preach on that one word, 'talk,' until the clapping and answering builds to a crescendo."

Jemie says that this use of traductio—repeating the word "talk"—is employed to generate "energy." He explains that although the word "talk" in this case seems arbitrarily chosen and insignificant, it is the act of repeating that is important to the sermon. The word "talk" is not meant as a weighty and important concept, as in the "Word" of God, but rather as a stimulus to a religious service.

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Nordquist, Richard. "Traductio: Rhetorical Repetition." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Traductio: Rhetorical Repetition. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Traductio: Rhetorical Repetition." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 11, 2023).