Adynaton (plural adynata) (from Greek: a-: without and dynasthai: to be powerful) is a figure of speech in the form of hyperbole taken to such extreme lengths as to suggest a complete impossibility:

Classical and Medieval usage

Adynaton was a widespread literary and rhetorical device during the Classical Period and was known in Latin as impossibilia. A frequent usage was to refer to one highly unlikely event occurring sooner than another:

One can expect an agreement between philosophers sooner than between clocks. Seneca, "The Pumpkinification of Claudius".

However it largely fell into disuse during the Middle Ages before undergoing a minor revival in the works of romantic poets, who would boast of the power of their love, and how it could never end.

Together, we shall sooner see, I, & you, The Rhône tarry, & reverse its course, The Saône roil, & return to source, Than this my fire ever die down Maurice Scève

Fiction, folklore and drama

Adynata are sometimes used within works of fiction or drama:

Part heat from fire, then, by that notion,
Part frost from snow, wet from the ocean!
Ask less!      Henrik Ibsen, Brand

Impossible tasks appears often in legends and folklore, such as the tale of "The Spinning-Woman by the Spring", and can form elements of ballads, riddles and proverbs.

Modern usage

Adynaton has survived to the modern age in several colourful examples:

See also

References and further reading

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