Allusion - Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Reese Witherspoon sitting behind wheel of red car
"Them's some big ugly . . . teeth you got, Bob." The movie Freeway, starring Reese Witherspoon, contains a number of allusions to the fairy tale "Little Red Riding Hood.".

Republic Pictures, 1996


An allusion is a brief, usually indirect reference to a person, place, or event--real or fictional. Verb: allude. Adjective: allusive. Also known as an echo or a reference.

Allusions may be historical, mythological, literary, or even personal. Rich sources of allusions include the literary works of Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, and George Orwell (among many others). Contemporary allusions often derive from movies, television, comic books, and video games.


From the Latin, allusio "to play with"

Examples and Observations

  • "[Allusions] can be used as a sort of shorthand, evoking instantly a complex human experience embedded with a story or dramatic event. . . . It is often possible to pack more meaning into a well-chosen allusion than into a roughly equivalent descriptive term from the general language either because an allusion can carry some of the connotations of the whole story from which it is drawn, or because an individual's name can be associated with more than one characteristic."  (Introduction to Oxford Dictionary of Reference and Allusion, 3rd ed., edited by Andrew Delahunty and Sheila Dignen. Oxford University Press, 2010)
  • "I violated the Noah rule: predicting rain doesn't count; building arks does."  (Warren Buffett)

Allusions to a Line by John Donne

  • "Never send to know for whom the grave is dug, I said to myself, it's dug for thee." (E.B. White, "Death of a Pig." The Atlantic, January 1948)
  • "Never send to know for whom the earth moves; if you're lucky, it moves for thee." (William Safire, Coming to Terms. Doubleday, 1991)

Allusions to Frost and Shakespeare

  • "Even sports newsletters allude to [poet Robert] Frost. When a New York Giants tackle was diagnosed as having cancer, Inside Football commented, 'The rest, since there was no more to build on there, turned to their affairs.' That's an allusion to a 1916 Frost poem about a boy's accidental death: 'No more to build on there. And they, since they/ Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.' (The poem's title is 'Out, Out--,' itself an allusion by Frost to [William] Shakespeare; after Lady Macbeth dies, Macbeth speaks of life's shortness, 'Out, out, brief candle!')" (William Safire, "On Language: Poetic Allusion Watch." The New York Times, July 24, 1988)
  • "Life is no 'brief candle' to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment  and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations." (George Bernard Shaw)

Allusions to Comic Books

  • "Comic books have become reference points in the most popular and the most esoteric fiction and art. Everyone understands a Superman allusion or a Batman joke." (Gerard Jones, Men of Tomorrow, Basic Books, 2005)
  • "I was not born in a manger. I was actually born on Krypton and sent here by my father, Jor-el, to save the Planet Earth." (Senator Barack Obama, speech at a fund-raiser for Catholic charities, October 16, 2008)

An Allusion to John Kennedy's Inaugural Address

"Senator Obama's call to 'ask not just what our government can do for us, but what we can do for ourselves' had an even more direct connection to the inaugural address of the first G.I. Generation president of the United States."  (Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais, Millennial Makeover. Rutgers University Press, 2008)

Characteristics of Effective Allusions

  • "An allusion which is explained no longer has the charm of allusion. . . . In divulging the mystery, you withdraw its virtue." (Jean Paulhan)
  • "When they fail, allusions leave us exposed: either enmeshed in inelegant, patronizing explanations or cast adrift with insufficient provisions on the murky seas of a childlike half-understanding. Failed allusions produce feelings of betrayal on all sides because they reveal mistaken assumptions about shared frames of reference and like-mindedness. . . . "Unlike most tricks, the allusion triumphs only when people know precisely how it is done." (Elizabeth D. Samet, "Grand Allusion." The New York Times, Feb. 3, 2012)

Allusions to "Little Red Riding Hood"

"Extended allusion can be used to show how deeply a story like Little Red Riding Hood is embedded in our subconscious and how it colours our vision of the real world. In Anthony Browne's The Tunnel (1989), . . . . Little Red Riding Hood is never mentioned in the text, but the numerous pictorial allusions to the well-known tale constitute a narrative thread that winds its way through the illustrations.

The intertextual relationship is established in the first full plate, which contains several transparent allusions to the classic tale. The red coat with the hood which hangs visibly on a hook behind Rose's bedroom door, and which she later wears when she goes outdoors, sets up an early connection between the heroine and Little Red Riding Hood."  (Sandra L. Beckett, Recycling Red Riding Hood. Routledge, 2002)

Literary Allusion as a Rhetorical Trope

"Allusion, I suggest, functions like the trope of classical rhetoric. A rhetorical trope is usually defined as the figure created by dislodging of a term from its old sense and its previous usage and by transferring to a new, proper, or 'strange' sense and usage. The gap between the letter and the sense in figuration is the same as the gap produced between the immediate, surface meaning of the word or phrase in the text and the thought evoked by the allusion. The effect could also be described as a tension between the literal and the figurative meaning, between the 'verbum proprium' and the 'impropium.' In both allusion and the trope, the poetic dimension is created by the simultaneous presence of two different realities whose competition with one another produces a single more complex reality. Such literary allusion produces the simultaneous coexistence of both a denotative and connotative semiotic."
(Gian Biagio Conte, quoted by Joseph Michael Pucci in The Full-Knowing Reader: Allusion and the Power of the Reader in the Western Literary Tradition. Yale University Press, 1998)

* The quotations from E.B. White and William Safire allude to this line by poet John Donne (1572-1631):

[A]ny man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee. ( Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, 1624)

Pronunciation: ah-LOO-zhen