Sunday, 23 February 2014

Catachresis - Using Words Misincorrectly

A newspaper sign saying "Burglar Prayed on the Elderly"
Photo by Ian Gallagher


Noun. Plural catachreses. Mid-16th century.
[Latin catachresis from Greek katakhresis, from katakhresthai to misuse, formed as CATA- + khresthai use.]

(An instance of) the incorrect use of words.

catachrestic adj. (of a word, etc.) misused, misapplied; of the nature of catachresis M17
catachrestical adj. E17
catachrestically adv. E17

A sign that says: "Please do not empty your dog"
Catachresis, or just a hilariously original use of language?
Photo by Gene Hunt
When I spied catachresis in the OED, my heart literally stopped beating and I died dead in anticipation - here was my chance to rant until my mind's content about the misuse and abuse of words like altercation, refute, chronic and ... yes ... literally. Aaargh! I get as sick as a carrot just thinking about that one. But having done a little research on the interweb, it seems that there is a bally dose of confusion about what even catachresis means, despite the main dictionaries being rather clear on the matter:

Chambers 20th Century
misapplication of a word

the incorrect use of words, as luxuriant for luxurious

 (1) use of the wrong word for the context
(2) use of a forced and especially paradoxical figure of speech (as blind mouths)

For example, several sites, including Wikipedia, say that catachresis also means using a word for something, in place of another more correct word or because a specific word for that thing doesn't exist, and a common example is a chair's leg. However, as the OED clearly includes in the definition of leg 'a thing resembling a leg or acting as a support,' it makes me wonder how catachrestic a chair's leg really is, assuming that we accept this rather suspect definition at all (unless it's only catachrestic when someone first says "Hmm. I don't know what that supporty thing on the chair is called. Let's go with leg," but when it becomes established, yes, that too is a leg, and it's no longer catachrestic or only historically catachrestic).

One use of catachrestic that does seem legitimate, however, is that of a forced or paradoxical figure of speech, as specifically defined as such by Merriam-Webster. Thus, if I said I was 'as happy as a corpse', this could be termed catachrestical, or maybe 'silent shouts'. However, what's wonderful about these is that they can be deliberate, a catachrestical twisting of the proper or usual meaning for effect (and before I get any pointed comments, yes, I did employ catachreses for illustrative effect in the opening paragraph of this post). So there you go - my chance at a genuine rant is gone, because I searched catachresis on the internet and came back with the troubling notion that there's a lot of confusion about what it means and, yes, our use of catachresis is often ironically catachrestical.

Do please leave your most curmudgeonly, catachrestic and carnaptious comments in the box below.


  1. The title reminds of some of the wonderful phrases and words used by George Bush in his prime. "One mistake they don't want to make is to misunderestimate us" is one of my favourites.
    On the use of wrong words, one that winds me up is people's seemingly constant use of "risqué" instead of "risky" as if they're completely interchangeable. "Oh he shouldn't of overtaken there, that was a bit risqué."
    "No. It was a bit RISKY. Aaaaaaargh."
    *stomps off in lexi-righteous indignation*

    1. Maybe if he was overtaking while doing some kind of saucy strip-tease behind the wheel and telling a rather naughty joke ...

    2. There are probably several rafters in my eye too Angry Nerd but isn't it "Oh he shouldn't HAVE overtaken there, that was a bit risky" ?


    3. AN was quoting someone that didn't know the difference between 'risky' and 'risqué'. True, he could also have remonstrated with his ill-educated backseat driver regarding the 'have' and 'of' thing, but that would be too much, wouldn't it?

      My Mum always said: "Only correct one catachresis at a time, otherwise you'll look like a right pillock."

    4. You're mum was right. Im literally mortified.


    5. Oh clooless. You're so pediantic.

    6. Not really, I can't stand children.


  2. Dang that's interesting! Ah don't know a whole lot bout words 'n stuff but if you'd lahke to mosey on over to mah site you might learn yourself a thing or two bout quilts!

  3. I'm not as worried about this subject as I am about the fact that the first thing I thought of whilst reading this was: "oo, that's just like Mavis from Coronation Street!"...

    1. I know there's a pop culture reference there that I should get, Debbie, but I'm afraid I've never seen Coronation Street : o /

  4. I would add misused words like maybe and may be, every and versus everyday, some time and sometime. Maybe – perhaps or possibly (as in something might happen), may be – has the ability to happen (as in implies something can happen).  Every day – means each day individually, everyday – (acts as an adjective) means: frequent or often. Some time - an extended period of time. Here the word “time” acts as a noun and the word “some” acts as an adjective describing time. Sometime - at some unspecified point of time. Sometime is an adverb telling when. If I have some doubts I use Hope this helpful information...

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