Definition of Zeugma

A zeugma is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase joins together two distinct parts of a sentence. There are a few different definitions of zeugma that illustrate the ways in which this figure of speech works. The most common definition of zeugma is a word that is used once, but works in two different ways, such as in the following sentence: “She tossed her hair back and the salad.” The word “tossed” in this example has two functions in the sentence. It is a verb in both cases but refers to very different actions. Zeugma can also be as simple as the role of the word “conquered” in the sentence “Lust conquered shame; audacity, fear; madness, reason” (a quote from Cicero). In this case, zeugma refers to the way that the verb does not need to be repeated for it is implied.

The word zeugma comes from the Ancient Greek word zeûgma, which means “a yoking together.” Zeugma can also be referred to syllepsis.

Common Examples of Zeugma

There are many famous quotes that contain examples of zeugma. Here are some of examples:

Significance of Zeugma in Literature

Examples of zeugma can be quite pleasing, as they depend on the reader to understand the multiple shades of meaning of a certain word. Oftentimes a zeugma can sound or look incorrect for a moment as it requires the reader or listener to quickly shift from one understanding to another. Thus, there can be an element of pun on the part of the author of a zeugma, as puns operate on words that have more than one meaning. However, zeugma examples are not necessarily humorous, as they may just be an innovative way of using a word.

Examples of Zeugma in Literature

Example #1

Close by those meads, for ever crown’d with flow’rs,
Where Thames with pride surveys his rising tow’rs,
There stands a structure of majestic frame,
Which from the neighb’ring Hampton takes its name.
Here Britain’s statesmen oft the fall foredoom
Of foreign tyrants and of nymphs at home;
Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey,
Dost sometimes counsel take—and sometimes tea.

(“The Rape of the Lock: Canto 3” by Alexander Pope)

In Alexander Pope’s long poem “The Rape of the Lock,” he uses an interesting example of zeugma. In the final two lines of this excerpt we see the statement “Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey, / Dost sometimes counsel take—and sometimes tea.” In this case, the character of Anna who is being addressed takes both counsel and tea. Thus, the word “take” here functions in two distinct ways.

Example #2

All these things, combined with the noises and interruptions of constant comings in and going out, made Mr. Pickwick play rather badly; the cards were against him, also, and when they left off at ten minutes past eleven, Miss Bolo rose from the table considerably agitated, and went straight home in a flood of tears, and a sedan-chair.

(The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens)

A clever writer, Charles Dickens created many examples of zeugma in his works of literature. In his first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (also known as The Pickwick Papers), we can find the above excerpt. In this excerpt, the character Miss Bolo goes home “in a flood of tears, and a sedan-chair.” The zeugma appears in this sense of going home both in a physical and emotional state.

Example #3

I sometimes dream of a larger and more populous house…where you can see so necessary a thing, as a barrel or a ladder, so convenient a thing as a cupboard, and hear the pot boil, and pay your respects to the fire that cooks your dinner, and the oven that bakes your bread, and the necessary furniture and utensils are the chief ornaments; where the washing is not put out, nor the fire, nor the mistress, and perhaps you are sometimes requested to move from off the trap-door, when the cook would descend into the cellar, and so learn whether the ground is solid or hollow beneath you without stamping.

(Walden by Henry David Thoreau)

Henry David Thoreau uses a zeugma example in his famous text, Walden. In a very long sentence describing his ideal house, Thoreau makes the statement, “where the washing is not put out, nor the fire, nor the mistress.” This clever fragment uses the phrasal verb “put out” in three different ways. The washing can literally be put out on the line, the fire can be extinguished, and the mistress can be emotionally put out if she is agitated. In Thoreau’s perfect life, none of these things would come to pass.

Example #4

The new boy took two broad coppers out of his pocket and held them out with derision. Tom struck them to the ground. In an instant both boys were rolling and tumbling in the dirt, gripped together like cats; and for the space of a minute they tugged and tore at each other’s hair and clothes, punched and scratched each other’s nose, and covered themselves with dust and glory.

(The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain)

In his novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain uses a clever zeugma example. The two boys in this scene start fighting, and Twain writes that they cover themselves “with dust and glory.” Though to some, fighting would be uncouth and dirt would not be desired, it is through this very act of bravado that the boys seek glory. Thus, the verb “covered” acts in both a literal and figurative way in this excerpt.

Example #5

Now Galadriel rose from the grass, and taking a cup from one of her maidens she filled it with white mead and gave it to Celeborn.
“Now it is time to drink the cup of farewell,” she said. “Drink, Lord of the Galadhrim! And let not your heart be sad, though night must follow noon, and already our evening draweth nigh.”
The she brought the cup to each of the Company, and bade them drink and farewell.

(The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien)

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s first installment of The Lord of The Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, there is an excellent example of zeugma that is perhaps subtler than some of the other examples. The character of Galadriel is sending off the fellowship to deliver the One Ring to Mount Doom, and in so doing she has them drink from a communal cup of mead. In this excerpt, she “bade them drink and farewell.” The verb “bade” works both with asking them to drink and sending them off on their way.