Understanding Zeugma: Definition, Examples and Usage
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 6 min read


  1. What is Zeugma?
  2. History of Zeugma
  3. Zeugma in Literature
  4. Why Zeugma Matters
  5. How to Use Zeugma
  6. Common Examples of Zeugma
  7. Zeugma vs. Syllepsis

When it comes to the colorful world of literature, a term that you might come across is zeugma. This might sound like some sort of exotic bird or a rare plant species, but it's actually a figure of speech that can add a unique flavor to your writing. So, let's dive straight into understanding the definition of zeugma, how it's used, and why it matters in everyday language and literature.

What is Zeugma?

Zeugma, pronounced as 'zoog-muh', is a noun that refers to a figure of speech where a word—usually a verb or an adjective—applies to more than one noun, but in different ways. To put it simply, it's like one word wearing two different hats at the same time. Interesting, isn't it? Now, let's look at this concept in action.

Consider the sentence: "She broke his car and his heart." Here, the verb 'broke' applies to both 'car' and 'heart'—two completely different nouns. But the meaning changes when applied to each. For the car, 'broke' means physical damage, while for the heart, it indicates emotional hurt. And voila! That's the definition of zeugma put into practice.

What makes zeugma fascinating is how it can inject creativity and depth into a sentence. It can make you pause and think—like a little puzzle embedded in the language. Zeugma can add a fun twist to the mundane, make a simple sentence more engaging, or lend a poetic touch to your prose. All this with just one word doing double-duty!

Now that you have a basic understanding of the definition of zeugma, let's dive deeper into its history, usage, and why it matters. So, buckle up, as we continue our language adventure!

History of Zeugma

Now that you're familiar with the definition of zeugma, you may be wondering where this quirky term originated. Well, like many other literary terms, zeugma has its roots in ancient Greece. The word "zeugma" comes from the Greek verb "zeugnynai" which means "to yoke" or "to join". It's a fitting name, don't you think? After all, zeugma is all about joining different concepts with a common word.

While the term might have ancient origins, it has found its place in contemporary literature and language too. Over the centuries, writers and poets have been using zeugma to add a dash of creativity and thoughtfulness to their work. From the classic works of Shakespeare to modern-day novels, zeugma has been leaving its unique imprint on the pages of literature.

So, the next time you come across a sentence where a single word seems to be juggling multiple meanings, remember — it's zeugma at play! And it's been entertaining readers, challenging language lovers, and enhancing literature for centuries. Pretty cool, right?

Now, let's move on to some examples of zeugma in literature, and see how this ancient figure of speech adds depth and flair to the written word.

Zeugma in Literature

Having explored the definition of zeugma and its fascinating history, let's see it in action in literature. After all, examples are the best way to understand any concept, right?

Consider this line from Charles Dickens' classic, "A Tale of Two Cities": "She opened her door and her heart to the orphan." In this sentence, the verb "opened" is used with both "door" and "heart", albeit in different contexts, and that's zeugma for you.

Another famous example of zeugma comes from Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock": "Here Thou, great Anna! whom three Realms obey, does sometimes counsel take — and sometimes Tea." Here, the verb "take" is used with "counsel" and "Tea", creating an interesting and humorous effect.

So, the next time you're reading a book or a poem, keep an eye out for zeugma. It might be hiding in plain sight, waiting to add a dash of wit or surprise to your reading experience. But why does zeugma matter, and how can you use it in your own writing? Let's find out in the next section.

Why Zeugma Matters

So you've seen some examples of zeugma in literature. Cool, right? But you might be wondering, "why should I care about zeugma? How does it affect me?" Well, here's why zeugma matters:

1. Adds Flavor to Writing: Zeugma can add a dash of spice to otherwise bland sentences. It's like a secret ingredient that can make your writing more interesting. And who doesn't like a little bit of surprise in their reading?

2. Creates Emotional Impact: By linking different ideas or actions together, zeugma can create a strong emotional response. Remember the Dickens example? The phrase "opened her door and her heart" can evoke a feeling of warmth and empathy.

3. Enhances Humor: If you enjoy a good laugh, zeugma is your friend. The unexpected linking of unrelated words or phrases can create a humorous effect, like in the Pope example. So, if you want to make your readers chuckle, consider using zeugma.

In short, zeugma is a powerful tool in the hands of a skilled writer. It can help you create engaging and memorable content, regardless of whether you're writing a novel, a blog post, or a social media update. But how exactly do you use zeugma? Let's find out in the next section.

How to Use Zeugma

Now that you've got a clear idea about the importance of zeugma, let's get down to the nitty-gritty: how do you use it in your own writing? If you've never used zeugma before, it might seem a bit tricky, but don't worry. I've got you covered with some simple steps:

1. Identify Your Words: Start by finding two words that can be linked by a shared word. Remember, this shared word can be a verb, an adjective, or a noun. For example, "time" and "watch".

2. Create Your Sentence: Next, create a sentence in which the shared word applies to both of the other words in a different way. Using our previous example, you could write: "He lost his watch and time."

3. Check your Work: Finally, go back and read your sentence to make sure the shared word makes sense in both contexts. If it doesn't, adjust as necessary.

And that's it! With a bit of practice, you'll be using zeugma like a pro. But don't get discouraged if it doesn't come naturally at first. Even famous authors had to start somewhere!

In the next section, we'll look at some common examples of zeugma to help solidify your understanding of this concept.

Common Examples of Zeugma

Now, let's take a look at some common examples of zeugma to help you better understand this concept. Remember, the key to understanding the definition of zeugma lies in seeing how a single word can provide different meanings in a sentence. So, let's put on our detective hats and dig in!

1. "She broke his car and his heart." In this sentence, the word "broke" is applied to both "car" and "heart", but it has a different meaning for each. You can physically break a car, but you can't physically break a heart—it's a metaphor for emotional hurt.

2. "He took his hat and his leave." Here, the word "took" applies to both "hat" and "leave". But while you can physically take a hat, you can't physically take leave—it's an idiom for saying goodbye.

3. "You are free to execute your laws, and your citizens, as you see fit." In this sentence, borrowed from the Star Trek movie, the word "execute" applies to both "laws" and "citizens", but in very different ways. Laws are executed by being carried out, citizens by capital punishment—quite a clever (and dark) use of zeugma!

As you can see, zeugma can add a layer of complexity and intrigue to language, making it a valuable tool for any writer. And the more you practice it, the easier it becomes! So why not give it a try in your next piece of writing?

Zeugma vs. Syllepsis

As we continue our exploration of the definition of zeugma, it's important to understand how zeugma differs from a closely related concept: syllepsis. These two terms often get used interchangeably, but they're not entirely the same thing.

Zeugma is a figure of speech in which a single word—like a verb or an adjective—applies to more than one noun, but creates different effects or meanings. For example, in the sentence "I lost my keys and my temper," the verb "lost" applies to both "keys" and "temper," but has a different meaning in each case.

Syllepsis, on the other hand, is a specific type of zeugma. In syllepsis, the single word that applies to multiple nouns doesn't fit grammatically or logically with at least one of them. Take this sentence from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice: "Miss Bingley's attention was quite as much engaged in watching Mr. Darcy's progress through his book, as in reading her own." Here, the verb "engaged" applies to both "watching Mr. Darcy's progress" and "reading her own book," but it doesn't quite fit with the former—that's syllepsis.

So while all instances of syllepsis are examples of zeugma, not all zeugmas are syllepses. It's a bit like how all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. Got it? Good! Now you're one step closer to becoming a master of zeugma.

If you're intrigued by the concept of Zeugma and looking to explore more creative ways to express yourself through language and storytelling, consider checking out the workshop 'Creating A Mini Digital Zine: Brainstorming' by Viktorija Semjonova. This workshop will guide you through the process of creating a unique digital zine, where you can incorporate your newfound understanding of Zeugma and other literary devices to make your work stand out.