Antiphrasis (Figure of Speech)

Senior woman in front of blackboard pretending to shout
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Antiphrasis is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is used in a sense contrary to its conventional meaning for ironic or humorous effect; verbal irony. The adjective for is antiphrastic.

Pronunciation: an-TIF-ra-sis

Also Known As: semantic inversion, verbal irony

Etymology: from the Greek, "express by the opposite"

Examples and Commentary:

  • "Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money--and a woman--and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?" (Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, 1944)
  • "He looked like a Vulcan fresh emerged from his forge, a misshapen giant not quite sure of how to maneuver in this bright new world... His real name, the name given to him by his youthful mother before she abandoned him in a Brooklyn orphanage, was Thomas Theodore Puglowski, but his friends all called him Tiny... At least, Tiny supposed, they would if he had any friends." (Michael McClelland, Oyster Blues. Pocket Books, 2001)
  • The first sentence below illustrates antiphrasis: it's clear that the noise Frank makes isn't at all "dulcet" (or "pleasing to the ear"). In the second passage, however, "pretty clever" is simply a convenient lie; it's not used as an ironic figure of speech.
     
    1. "I was awakened by the dulcet tones of Frank, the morning doorman, alternately yelling my name, ringing my doorbell, and pounding on my apartment door." (Dorothy Samuels, Filthy Rich. William Morrow, 2001)
    2. "Owen would just smile and eat his eggs, and maybe reach over and slap Ernie's back and say, 'That's real funny, Ernie. You're pretty clever.' All the while thinking to himself, You moron. What do you know?"

      "Which, of course, he couldn't say out loud. He could think it, but he couldn't say it. When you're a public figure in a small town, you have to treat people with dignity, even Ernie Matthews." (Philip Gulley, Home to Harmony. HarperOne, 2002)
  • Gob: What do you think, Dad--a whole tiny town?
    Larry: Another brilliant idea, Einstein!
    Gob: Really? You'll build it with me?
    George Sr.: Larry never really knows how to sell the sarcasm.
    ("Mr. F." Arrested Development, 2005)
  • "Even a brief consideration of the most common rhetorical devices deployed in ironic texts will show that antiphrasis explains only some of them, such as litotes and contradiction; whereas, on the contrary, hyperbole works by excess, not opposition, and meiosis operates by playing down more than by playing against."
    (Linda Hutcheon, Irony's Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony. Routledge, 1994)
  • "I told you, she's got tracking devices in our fillings! If you two geniuses had ripped them out like I did, we wouldn't have been in this mess!"
    (Justin Berfield as Reese in "Billboard." Malcolm in the Middle, 2005)

The Use of Antiphrasis by the "Inventive Youth of London" (1850)

"[A]ntiphrasis... is best explained by saying that it seems to have become the chief rhetorical ornament of the ingenious and inventive youth of London, the real City, and may be found in its highest perfection in the conversations of the Artful Dodger, Mr. Charley Bates, and other luminaries of the novels now or lately most in esteem. It partakes of the nature of the Socratic Eironeia, in expressing your thought by words whose literal signification is the precise reverse thereof...

For example, they say of a man-of-war, 'how little this is!' meaning, how immense! 'Here is only one yam!' = what a number of yams! Chi atoo ofa--Small is my love for you = I love you to madness and murder. It is to be lamented that this form of speech is not more widely diffused amongst us: we do indeed hear occasionally, 'you are a nice man!' 'this is pretty conduct!' and the like; but the dodge is rarely exemplified in Parliamentary debate, where it would often be highly ornamental."

("Forms of Salutation." The London Quarterly Review, October 1850)

Further Reading