ATOV: Sine qua non

I don’t know if this phrase is useful for most people to use, but it is certainly useful to know.  Let us add it to our vocabulary.

Sine qua non translates to “without which (there is) nothing.  It can be translated to “but for”, but it makes more sense in that longer English translation.  Another useful definition is: “an indispensable element”.  It is used as a noun, typically used as a determinate phrase.


The sine qua non of a business is customers.

“Sugar is a sine qua non to make a cake.”

Interestingly, a winery/mail-order-wine business has taken the name Sine Qua Non.  The wine is only sold to the mail-order list, and apparently there is a list to get on the list.

Laundry Semantics

The disparity between the number of people who know what these signs mean and the number of people who don’t know the signs, but have seen them all their life, that disparity is as wide as a door is open:


Treasures from My Bookmarks: Colors

Let’s take a break from literary devicing.  Here’s something fascinating:

harry potter frame by framePerhaps you’ve seen it before.  It is every frame of each of the Harry Potter movies condensed (I think) into a pixel wide bar.  Notice how you can see the rise and fall of conflict based on the lightness and darkness of the colors.  The books and movies are described as “darker” the further into the series: looking at this image, they literally are darker.  The change from reddish hues to green ones is also interesting.  I’m not sure what the colorful blue purple orange is just to the right of the center.

This being the internet, there’s more:

Rather than getting every frame, this graphic shows the colors of their clothes.  Nonetheless, a similar story is told, with a different color palette.  What is that white area in the right of center for Hank?

Penultimately, there’s this.  Wired analyzed ten famous books for the colors they mention and then made it into individual graphics.  Notice how Clockwork Orange and 1984 have almost the opposite order of colors as The Road.

Lastly, there’s this RadioLab podcast.  Unbelievably interesting.  From the mantis shrimp’s absurd color perception, to the fact that the color blue never is mentioned in the Bible or the Illiad, or the possibility that the sky is actually not blue.  Too interesting.

I’ll add more color stuff like this as I find more.

2LD: Allusion & Ambiguity (And a bonus: garden path sentences)

Two more easy ones.

An allusion is a reference the author doesn’t explain, because the reader is expected to know of it.  The reference can be “a person, place, thing or idea of historical, cultural, literary or political significance.”

Verbally, allusions are made every time we say something is “so 1984“, meaning that the something resembles the dystopian world Orwell wrote in 1984.  When we say someone ran like Usain Bolt, we are making an allusion.  We expect the audience to know that “running like Usain Bolt” means “running very fast.”

Perhaps more interesting are visual allusions.  Take the iconic Obama Hope image:

The above image is in our cultural lexicon.  The below image, however…

…is not directly in our cultural lexicon.  But the design of this image inherently references the original.  This image can be viewed and “read” superficially, but there won’t be much to read.  Knowing that this is a reference to the Obama Hope image, though, allows us to read it as an allusion.  In this specific case, it is a parody allusion.  The Joker image could be commenting on the difference in goals the two leaders have, it could be poking fun at the original image (notice how it can do this without being the original image at all), or it could just be the product of a curious mind.  Either way, it is a visual parody allusion.

If I were to come up with a list of literary devices, ambiguity would not be one of them.  To me, it’s just a middle-school vocabulary word.  But it does make sense that it is a literary device: it’s another tool the writer has to add layers to his work, another lens with which the reader has to read the work.

An ambiguous sentence is a sentence that can be read in at least two different ways.  If I read the sentence “Her phone rang and she answered”, it could mean

1.  Her phone made a sound and she answered the phone
2.  Her phone made a sound and she answered something else (someone in the room)
3.  Her phone vibrated (or otherwise alerted her to a call) and she answered the phone
4.  Her phone vibrated (or otherwise…) and she answered something else

There could be more possible events.  The point is, is that the sentence has at least some ambiguity.

Ambiguity, like allegory, is a spectrum.  The above example typically is read/heard to mean #1.  #2, 3, and 4 are possible, but they are not probable.  However, an example, such as the following, has multiple meanings that are more closely probable:

“[I ran to the store] and [got back in time] [for the game.]”

The first part alone could mean:

1.  I physically ran to the store
2.  I drove to the store

The second part could mean:

a.  I got back to see the pre-game shows/events
b.  I got back to see the beginning of the game itself
c.  I got back before it was over

The third part could mean:

I.  board game
II.  sports on the TV
III.  actually at the sport event
IV.  poker game of No-Limit Texas Hold Em
V.  poker game of Five Card Draw
VI.  etc.

The sentence’s ambiguity decreases given the context, but all the readings are still technically possible.

One fun example of ambiguous sentences are “garden path sentences.”  These are sentences that prime the reader to expect ambiguity, but to guess the sentence is going one way, but it ends up going another.  Here are some examples from the Wikipedia page:

“The old man the boat”
“The complex houses married and single soldiers and their families”
“The government plans to raise taxes were defeated”

Here’s the excellent Dinosaur Comics explanation and example:

And here are some more examples:

  • The man who hunts ducks out on weekends.
  • The cotton clothing is made of grows in Mississippi.
  • The author wrote the novel was likely to be a best-seller.
  • I convinced her children are noisy.
  • The tomcat curled up on the cushion seemed friendly.
  • The man returned to his house was happy.
  • Mary gave the child the dog bit a bandaid.
  • The government plans to raise taxes were defeated.
  • The girl told the story cried.
  • I know the words to that song about the queen don’t rhyme.
  • The sour drink from the ocean.
  • That Jill is never here hurts.
  • The tycoon sold the offshore oil tracts for a lot of money wanted to kill JR.

2LD: Allegory & Alliteration

Two more easy ones in this Two Literary Devices series: allegory and alliteration.

An allegory is an entire story/artwork that superficially works on its own, but it’s purpose is to primarily teach a political/ethical lesson. gives these examples of allegories: George Orwell’s Animal Farm (superficially it is about animals on a farm, allegorically it is about communism), Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen, and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

Wikipedia’s page on allegory is exceptionally interesting: Northrop Frye apparently had the idea of “a ‘contiuum of allegory.'”  In certain allegories, the superficial story is just the vehicle for the lesson.  The character’s aren’t fleshed out, the plot is straightforward, and the allegory just lacks depth.  On the other side are allegories that have so much depth that it is difficult to ascertain their deeper meaning.

In making my own example, I don’t know whether to start with a superficial story or with the underlying moral/political lesson I want to teach.  Let’s say I started with the moral lesson: never be rude to a customer:

When John was of the mortal realm, he waited tables.  Upon his catastrophic death, when he died of food poisoning after eating the bleach riddled entree meant for the rude customer, John was sent to Hell.  But this was a special kind of Hell: John lived in a nightmare only the servers from the movie Waiting could imagine: every customer that the John was rude to, deserved or not, now lives underneath John’s eyelids, pestering him with requests every time he blinks.  Nothing he can do will get rid of the images he sees every time he blinks: each customer red in the face asking to see his manager.  If only John had been polite.

Yeah, it’s not great, but man, it’s tough to write an allegory.  Far easier to identify.

Alliteration has been one of my favorite literary devices ever since I learned about it: the repetition of the same sound at the beginning of close-together words.

Tongue twisters are often alliterative:

•A big bug bit a bold bald bear and the bold bald bear bled blood badly.

•Brisk brave brigadiers brandished broad bright blades, blunderbusses, and bludgeons — Balancing them badly.

•Can you can a canned can into an uncanned can like a canner can can a canned can into an uncanned can?

Here’s a list of idiomatic alliterations, alliterations that are in our everyday speech.

Here’s my alliteration example:

When waitstaff whine, cooks can’t care.

Alliteration is similar to consonance and assonance, with a key difference.  Alliteration is only the first sounds in multiple words; consonance (only consonant sounds) and assonance (only vowel sounds) refer to sounds anywhere in the words sentence/sentences.  My example above alliterates and consonates.

Happy literary devicing.

2LD: Ad Hominem & Adage

As far as is concerned, the literary device of “ad hominem” is the same as the logical fallacy:

An ad hominem is a verbal attack on a person rather than the person’s argument.  It is logically unsound, but it is generally effective, because it attacks the person’s ethos (rather than logos), engages the audience’s pathos, and enrages the person’s pathos and pride.  They defend themselves instead of discussing further the argument, and by doing so, they just play into the hands of the logically fallacious.

An ad hominem argument is as follows:

“How can you argue your case for vegetarianism when you are enjoying your steak?”

My example is as follows:

“Clean your room, it’s dirty” said the parent.
“You didn’t clean your room.  You’re a hypocrite,” said the child.

Calling out hypocrisy is irrelevant to the argument that one’s room needs to be cleaned because it’s dirty.

As with ad hominem, adages are simple.  An adage is “a short, pointed and memorable saying based on facts, and is considered a veritable truth by the majority of people.” claims that there is a difference between adages and proverbs, but I disagree, as does  As that website points out, “English possesses dozens of nouns that mean ‘short sayings that encapsulate truth or wisdom passed on from previous generations.'”

Examples of adages are as follows:

“Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.”

“Things are not always what they seem.”

An adage isn’t something I can just write, but one that I thought of that wasn’t on any of the websites I consulted is a bit of wisdom I hear from managers at restaurants:

Time to lean, time to clean.

2LD: Accumulation & Adynaton

2LD posts will be featuring two literary devices. My goal is to learn all of these.  It is personally satisfying knowing the names and even the existence of these techniques, but more than that, knowing the word helps explain the beauty.  All of the times we think a sentence sounds superb, there is at least one literary device at work.  It is my goal to recognize and use them often.

First up is “accumulation.”  Accumulation is the rhetorical act of piling up a description for a single purpose.

Of all the examples I’ve found online (1, 2, 3, 4), I found 4 the most useful:

In the following examples, scattered arguments are gathered and presented together to make the point compact and forceful.

  • “He is the betrayer of his own self-respect, and the waylayer of the self-respect of others; covetous, intemperate, irascible, arrogant; disloyal to his parents, ungrateful to his friends, troublesome to his kin; insulting to his betters, disdainful of his equals and mates, cruel to his inferiors; in short, he is intolerable to everyone.” Attributed to Cicero,Rhetorica ad Herennium, IV.52
  • “A generation goes and a generation comes, yet the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and rushes back again to the place from which it rises. The wind blows south, then returns to the north, round and round goes the wind, on its rounds it circulates. All streams flow to the sea, yet the sea does not fill up.”   (Ecclesiastes, The Old Testament)

The repetition of description (the accumulation) is aimed at one purpose for each of these examples: in the first, the character is clearly no bueno; in the second, nature moves in cycles.

As with all of these 2LD posts, I’ll make my own example.  This example will be a meta-example, an explanation of the literary device AND an example of it in use:

Accumulation is the piling up, the stacking, the heaping of useful description

The gerunds (piling up, stacking, heaping) all mean the same thing, but they add to the description by emphasizing the quantity.

That was accumulation.  Now on to adynaton.

First off, how is it pronounced and where does this word come from?  As far as I can tell, it is pronounced a (cat) + dee + na (name) + tin.  Adeenatin.  It is a compound word from Ancient Greek meaning “without” + “I am able”.

As an English literary device, it is a hyperbole (an exaggeration) in the extreme.  So hyperbolic is this device that it would be impossible for the description to be real.

There are excellent lists of adynatons (technically the plural form of adynaton is adynata): 1, 2 .  However, the one that I think will stick in my head the best is this one:

“‘I will sooner have a beard grow in the palm of my hand than he shall get one of his cheek’, —Shakespeare 2 Henry IV 1.2.20-22″

It is physically impossible to grow a beard on the palm of one’s hand.  Therefore, it is an adynaton.

As for my own example, here it goes:

I’m so horny, I could fuck through a brick wall.

Happy literary devicing.

ATOV: Every n years

So I came across this Category page in Wiktionary.  What caught my interest was the righthand sidebar.  It lists “Recent additions to the category” and “oldest pages ordered by last edit.”  Here is what they are now:

Screen Shot 2015-09-13 at 23.47.10Adoxography is definitely a word to add to our vocabularies.  It means “fine writing on a trivial or base subject”.  What an easy way to give a back-handed compliment when you want to praise the message but condemn the topic.

Anyways, the list updates.  And I found the word “quinquennial”.  It was easy enough to see what it meant, same as annual, but instead of once per year, “quinquennial” means once per five years.  But I didn’t know the word/idea had a name.  So I looked up as many of these “every n years” words I could find.  And I found this excellent list.  Somehow, I want to use “dodransbicentennial” in my everyday speech.

ATOV: Inflection, Lemma, Lexeme, Limnology

Inflection/Inflexion: “modification of a word to express different grammatical categories such as tense, mood, voice, aspect, person, number, gender and case…The inflection of verbs is also called conjugation, and the inflection of nouns, adjectives and pronouns is also called declension.”

Lemma: the canonical form of an inflected word (i.e. what’s in the dictionary).1

Lexeme: the lemma and all of its inflections.

So a lemma might be (run) and the lexeme would be (run, runs, ran, etc.).  Our vocabulary is full of lexemes; dictionaries are full of lemmas.  A lemma is a lexeme without inflection.  A lexeme is a lemma plus all possible inflections.

Limnology: study of lakes and fresh water (Greek limne means “pool of standing water, tidal pool, marsh, lake”)2

  1.  How does lemma etymologically relate to dilemma?  Prescriptively/connotatively, a dilemma is a choice between two equally negative outcomes.  Di is the Greek root for “two” and lemma means “premise, assumption.”  Somehow, the idea of “a conclusion” is added in there.
  2.  The Ancient Greek limne most likely comes from the Proto-Indo-European word that also gives us the English slime.