Catachresis vs Metaphor

The Subtle Difference Between Catachresis and Metaphor

The core concept that distinguishes Catachresis from Metaphor Opens in new window is the distinction between “necessity” and “ornament”. In Catachresis, the borrowed term is necessitated by the lack of a sufficient supply of proper terms to signal every idea or object. However, in metaphor, the substitution is merely by choice, employed for the sake of clarity and decorative enhancement.

Yet inspite of this clear distinction between catachresis and metaphor, the confusion of the two terms persists obstinately into contemporary attempts at ordered definition. Richard LanhamOpens in new window through his “Handlist of Rhetorical Terms,” identifies catachresis in two instances:

  1. “implied metaphor, using words wrenched from common usage” and;
  2. “an extravagant, unexpected, far-fetched metaphor, as when a weeping woman’s eyes become Niagara Falls.”

Northrop FryeOpens in new window writes in Anatomy of Criticism of “the unexpected or violent metaphor that is called catachresis,” while the Princeton Encyclopedia defines catachresis almost exclusively in terms of a strained, farfetched, or mixed metaphor, with no mention whatsoever of the long-standing distinction on the basis of the presence or absence of an original proper term.

The hallmark of a clear distinction between catachresis and metaphor is when QuintilianOpens in new window notes:

  • “We must be careful to distinguish between catachresis (abusio), and metaphor (translation), since the former is employed where there is no proper term available, and the latter when there is another term available.”
  • (Institutio OratoriaOpens in new window, 8.6.35.)
Further Readings:
Wikipedia | CatachresisOpens in new window American Rhetoric | CatachresisOpens in new window
The Ends of Rhetoric: History, Theory, Practice | By John B. Bender, David E. Wellbery: Metaphor & CatachresisOpens in new window
The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics: Fourth Edition | edited by Stephen Cushman, Clare Cavanagh, Jahan Ramazani, Paul Rouzer:CatachresisOpens in new window