Antiphrasis: Playing with Opposite Meanings

Antiphrasis, a fascinating linguistic device, finds its roots in the Greek word "antiphrasis," which translates to "opposite word." This clever figure of speech involves using words or phrases in a way that is contrary to their literal meaning, often to create humor or irony. Essentially, it's the art of saying one thing while meaning another.

Examples of Antiphrasis

“Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money–and a woman–and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it…” (Double Indemnity, by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler).

In this example, the speaker employs antiphrasis by describing a murder as "pretty," creating a stark irony in the statement.

Example #1: Home to Harmony (By Philip Gulley)

“Owen would just smile and eat his eggs, and maybe reach over and slap Ernie’s back and say, ‘That’s real funny, Ernie. You’re pretty clever.’ All the while thinking to himself, you moron. What do you know? … Which, of course, he couldn’t say out loud. He could think it, but he couldn’t say it. When you’re a public figure in a small town, you have to treat people with dignity, even Ernie Matthews …”

Owen uses antiphrasis to mock Ernie's cleverness while secretly thinking quite the opposite.

Example #2: Filthy Rich (By Dorothy Samuels)

“I was awakened by the dulcet tones of Frank, the morning doorman, alternately yelling my name, ringing my doorbell, and pounding on my apartment door …”

Here, "dulcet tones," typically associated with pleasant sounds, takes on an ironic twist as it describes the irritating noise made by the doorman.

Example #3: Oyster Blues (By Michael McClelland)

“He looked like a Vulcan fresh emerged from his forge, a misshapen giant not quite sure of how to maneuver in this bright new world … His real name, the name given to him by his youthful mother before she abandoned him in a Brooklyn orphanage, was Thomas Theodore Puglowski, but his friends all called him Tiny … At least, Tiny supposed, they would if he had any friends …”

This excerpt employs antiphrasis humorously by describing a character as both a "giant" and "Tiny."

Function of Antiphrasis

Antiphrasis, like other rhetorical devices, adds layers of meaning to a text or situation. It piques readers' interest by introducing unexpected contrasts. This technique not only enhances the appeal of literary works but also encourages readers to think critically about the underlying meanings of words and phrases. Antiphrasis is not confined to literature; it also finds its way into everyday language, making conversations more colorful and thought-provoking. Ultimately, it bridges the gap between literature and real-life experiences.

Let's Talk About It

What are some other examples of antiphrasis that you've encountered in literature or daily life? How does the use of antiphrasis affect your interpretation of the text or conversation? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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