Catachresis (Rhetoric)

Colourful balloons in empty warehouse. Mixed metaphors.
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Catachresis is a rhetorical term for the inappropriate use of one word for another, or for an extreme, strained, or mixed metaphor often used deliberately. The adjective forms are catachrestic or catachrestical.

Confusion over the meaning of the term catachresis dates back to Roman rhetoric. "In some definitions," Jeanne Fahnestock points out, "a catachresis is a type of metaphor, a substitute naming that occurs when a term is borrowed from another semantic field, not because the borrower wants to substitute for the 'ordinary' term (e.g., 'lion' for 'warrior'), but because there is no ordinary term" (Rhetorical Figures in Science, 1999).

  • Pronunciation: KAT-uh-KREE-sis
  • Also Known As abusio
  • Etymology: From the Greek, "misuse" or "abuse"


  • "Red trains cough Jewish underwear for keeps! Expanding smells of silence. Gravy snot whistling like seabirds."
    (Amiri Baraka, Dutchman, 1964)
  • "Attentive readers will have noticed a lamentable catachresis yesterday when the Wrap referred to some French gentlemen as Galls, rather than Gauls."
    (Sean Clarke, The Guardian, June 9, 2004)

Tom Robbins on a Full Moon

"The moon was full. The moon was so bloated it was about to tip over. Imagine awakening to find the moon flat on its face on the bathroom floor, like the late Elvis Presley, poisoned by banana splits. It was a moon that could stir wild passions in a moo cow. A moon that could bring out the devil in a bunny rabbit. A moon that could turn lug nuts into moonstones turn Little Red Riding Hood into the big bad wolf."
(Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker, 1980)

Stretching Metaphors

"The hallmark of the [Thomas] Friedman method is a single metaphor, stretched to column length, that makes no objective sense at all and is layered with other metaphors that make still less sense. The result is a giant, gnarled mass of incoherent imagery. When you read Friedman, you are likely to encounter such creatures as the Wildebeest of Progress and the Nurse Shark of Reaction, which in paragraph one are galloping or swimming as expected, but by the conclusion of his argument are testing the waters of public opinion with human feet and toes, or flying (with fins and hooves at the controls) a policy glider without brakes that is powered by the steady wind of George Bush’s vision."
(Matt Taibbi, "A Shake of the Wheel." New York Press, May 20, 2003)

Quintilian on Metaphor and Catachresis

"The first thing that strikes one in the history of the terms 'metaphor' and 'catachresis' is the apparently unnecessary confusion of the two since the difference between them was clearly defined as early as Quintilian's discussion of catachresis in the Institutio Oratoria. Catachresis (abusio, or abuse) is defined there as 'the practice of adapting the nearest available term to describe something for which no actual [i.e., proper] term exists.' The lack of an original proper term--the lexical gap or lacuna--is in this passage the clear basis for Quintilian's distinction between catachresis, or abusio, and metaphor, or translatio: catachresis is a transfer of terms from one place to another employed when no proper word exists, while metaphor is a transfer or substitution employed when a proper term does already exist and is displaced by a term transferred from another place to a place not its own...
Yet... the confusion of the two terms persists with a remarkable tenacity right up to the present. The Rhetorica ad Herennium, for example, thought for centuries to be Ciceronian and received with the authority of Cicero, muddies the clear waters of logical distinction by defining catachresis [abusio] as 'the inexact use of a like or kindred word in place of the precise and proper one.' The abuse in abusio is here instead of abuse of metaphor, the wrong or inexact use of it as a substitution for the proper term. And the alternative word audacia for catachresis joins abusio as another highly charged pejorative, with potential application to an 'audacious' metaphor."
(Patricia Parker, "Metaphor and Catachresis." The Ends of Rhetoric: History, Theory, Practice, ed. by John Bender and David E. Wellbery. Stanford University Press, 1990)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Catachresis (Rhetoric)." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Catachresis (Rhetoric). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Catachresis (Rhetoric)." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).