Catachresis (from Greek κατάχρησις), which literally means the incorrect or improper use of a word, is a term used to denote the (usually intentional) use of any figure of speech that flagrantly violates the norms of a language community. Compare malapropism.

Common forms of catachresis are:

  • Using a word to denote something radically different from its normal meaning.

'Tis deepest winter in Lord Timon's purse – Shakespeare, Timon of Athens

  • Using a word to denote something for which, without the catachresis, there is no actual name.

"a table's leg"

  • Using a word out of context.

'Can't you hear that? Are you blind?'

"To take arms against a sea of troubles..." – Shakespeare, Hamlet
Arguably, however, this is perhaps neither a catachresis nor a mixed metaphor. In context, Hamlet is pondering futility: faced with a sea of troubles, taking up a sword and shield is not going to have an effect on the oncoming wave. In this sense, the quotation is a straightforward metaphor, albeit interpretable as a catachresis.

Catachresis is often used to convey extreme emotion or alienation, and is prominent in baroque literature and, more recently, in the avant-garde.

See also


  • Smyth, Herbert Weir (1920). Greek Grammar. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-36250-0.

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