Literary Term Of The Day!

The literary term of the day for today, Sept. 9 2008, is

“Allusion.” Merriam-Webster online provides this definition:

  1. : an implied or indirect reference especially in literature; also : the use of such references
  2. : the act of alluding to or hinting at something

MW-Online DIctionary

Here’s a brief example of an allusion.

In Sarah Palin’s convention speech, the Vice-Presidential candidate ad-libbed this joke:

I love those hockey moms. You know, they say the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.

Raw Data: Sarah Palin Remarks at GOP Convention

Now, Barack Obama alluded to Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin by saying the following:

You see, Obama knows that his campaign has been in trouble ever since Sarah Palin gave her acceptance speech at the RNC convention. It was at the convention that Palin made the immensely popular and well-received “hockey mom” joke. In an attempt to make Palin look silly, Obama indirectly referenced, hinted at, i.e. he alluded to, her convention speech.

Does this make Obama sexist?

No. Palin mentioned the lipstick to which Obama alluded. It would only be sexist if Obama had somehow implied that Palin, as a woman, is unqualified for the job for that fact alone. He didn’t. But he obviously alluded to Palin with the “pig” comment.

6 responses

  1. Except for the minor detail that what he was discussing had absolutely nothing to do with her.

    September 11, 2008 at 12:27 am

  2. That is a minor detail, Sergei. But I’m glad you brought it up. When using allusion one need not be discussing or writing about that to which one is alluding. For example, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

    Unreal City, 60
    Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
    A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
    I had not thought death had undone so many.[1]
    Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
    And each man fixed his eyes before his feet. 65
    Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
    To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
    With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
    There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying ‘Stetson!
    ‘You who were with me in the ships at Mylae! 70
    ‘That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
    ‘Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
    ‘Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
    ‘Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
    ‘Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again! 75
    ‘You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!’

    This is incoherent gibberish, but it’s chock full of allusions. Notably, Dante’s The Divine Comedy. [1] is an allusion to Inferno III, 55 – 57

    And after it there came so long a train
    Of people, that I ne’er would have believed
    That ever Death so many had undone.

    But, obviously, Eliot was not talking about the inferno, he merely wanted his readers to recall specific imagery from Dante even though it has nothing to do with The Waste Land (which, surprisingly, is about the Fisher King. Obama used allusion to effectively conjure up Sarah Palin’s RNC speech in the minds of his listeners, and in doing so he inserted the image of a pig wearing lipstick.

    September 11, 2008 at 12:58 am

  3. Allusions are always made with reason. Eliot alluded to the passage from Dante because a) he was a didactic bore, and b) the allusion served some purpose in the poem, both the obvious (linking the people of London to the inmates of Hell), the less so (linking the people of London to the spiritually dead people Jesus spoke of when He said, “Let the dead bury their dead”; this link is based on both the previous link and the numerous earlier allusions to scripture), and the not at all (insert doctoral thesis here). What purpose could an allusion to Palin have served in Obama’s speech? What he was talking about was how McCain’s economic platform is really just more of the same, but was being made to look like what it wasn’t. Had Obama developed and expanded this theme, talking about other instances in which McCain had presented more of the same as change — say, talking about how McCain had made a show of purging his campaign of lobbyists, but had been unable to similarly purge his voting record — and had then made the comment, it would have been an allusion. However, in the allusion, Palin would have been the lipstick, and John McCain the pig.

    I do, however, suspect that Obama put in — or at least kept — the line because of Palin. In context, there was no way to attack him with it, but Obama knew that footage of him saying that line, when divorced from context, could be used in a dishonest attack ad. Sure enough, McCain took the bait, and further reinforced the trend of blatant dishonesty that his campaign has been taking ever since the convention. McCain wants to make this election about personality rather than issues. I suspect that Obama is encouraging McCain to build up a reputation for being dishonest, which would ensure his defeat if he succeeds in making the election focus on personality.

    September 12, 2008 at 1:10 am

  4. I think that we’re basically in agreement here, Sergei. Allusions are indirect, implied and rhetorical, in some cases they’re not even supposed to be analyzed thoroughly and are not expected to be understood as critical parts of the text or speech in which they are contained (sometimes, as with Eliot’s poetry and in other cases, they are, though).

    September 12, 2008 at 3:31 pm

  5. My primary point was that they are not made without reason.

    September 12, 2008 at 11:32 pm

  6. Trope Literary Term – it is the use of a word or phrase in a sense just different from its ordinary meaning in a non-literal sense. Some important types of trope are Irony, Metaphor and Metonymy. this is the trope litrary term.

    September 18, 2008 at 1:29 am

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