Rhetoric 101: Polyptoton

At the risk of repeating myself, here’s an intro to another rhetorical device that’s grounded in repetition – but it’s a bit more complicated than Anaphora.

Polyptoton (that’s po-LIP-ti-tun, and it’s a lot of fun to say) occurs when you take a root word and repeat it, but change it slightly every time you use it. As always, examining the etymology helps shed some light on the meaning – translated from Greek, it means ‘use of the same word in many cases.’

In essence, it’s using too many words to express a simple statement, which is usually something the Wordsmith team tries to avoid – although that’s due to the Stockholm Syndrome we’ve all developed in response to strict character limits. In fact, polyptoton – done properly – can be extremely beautiful. When you’re given the freedom to stretch out, it means you can express things indirectly – taking the scenic route linguistically.

Usually, polyptoton occurs within the space of a sentence, but some academics have argued that it can be spread throughout a paragraph, or even a book – look at Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for a lovely example of this. She describes the titular doctor’s creation as a ‘wretch’, and then frequently sprinkles the same word throughout the book as the root of ‘wretched’, ‘wretchedly’ and ‘wretchedness.’

What’s It Used For?

Polyptoton is a fantastic way to create a striking sentence. It can enhance the meaning of words dramatically, which is handy for persuasive writing. Whenever we repeat a word, we’re doing it for emphasis and to draw focus – but it can also throw words into sharp contrast due to the subtle change. Speaking of change, polyptoton can be used to indicate a change from one state to another – or alternatively, to connect two separate ideas. It’s quite versatile.

It’s seen most often in Latin and Old English poetry – “Polyptoton is one of the most frequently employed types of repetition in the bible”, noted Janie Steen in Verse and Virtuosity – but it’s still used today, by poets, playwrights, and political leaders.

A Brief Note on Antanaclasis

Antanaclasis is very similar to polyptoton, but it’s taken to the next level – similar words are repeated several times, but this time each of them has a different meaning. For example, Shakespeare (a very punny man) used Antanaclasis in Henry V: “To England will I steal, and there I’ll steal.”

Who Did It Best?

You’ve probably heard Lord Acton’s famous insight into the nature of power before, but you might not have recognised the quiet genius behind it:

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

— Lord Acton

So much repetition in such a short sentence! But only one of them is an example of polyptoton. ‘Power’ and ‘corrupt’ are just direct repetitions. It’s the way he plays with the root word ‘absolute’ that lends this quote its beauty.

What happens when you use polyptoton more frequently? Shakespeare, as always, is the man to turn to for an example:

“The Greeks are strong and skillful to their strength,
Fierce to their skill and to their fierceness valiant”

— Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida

Three examples in two lines, all of them used to emphasise the legendary power of the Greek soldiers. He’s at it again in Richard II:

“With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder.”

— Shakespeare, Richard II

Try saying that one out loud. That many references to food in eight words feels a bit gluttonous in itself – like your mouth is too full to get the sentence out – which is sort of the point of the line. Clever boy.