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Encyclopedia > Allusion

An allusion is a figure of speech that makes a reference/representation of/to a well-known person, place, event, literary work, or work of art. M.H. Abrams defined allusion as "a brief reference, explicit or indirect, to a person, place or event, or to another literary work or passage".[1] It is left to the reader or hearer to make the connection (Fowler); an overt allusion is a misnomer for what is simply a reference.

In a freer informal definition allusion is a passing or casual reference; an incidental mention of something, either directly or by implication.


Scope and history

An allusion is a literary term, though the word also has come to encompass indirect references to any source, including allusions in film or the visual arts. In the field of film criticism, a film-maker's intentionally unspoken visual reference to another film has come to be called an homage. It may even be sensed that real events have allusive overtones, when a previous event is inescapably recalled by a current one. "Allusion is bound up with a vital and perennial topic in literary theory, the place of authorial in interpretation", William Irwin observed, in asking "What is an allusion?"[2] Without the hearer or reader's comprehending the author's intention, an allusion becomes merely a decorative device. This article is about motion pictures. ... The Mona Lisa is one of the most recognizable artistic paintings in the Western world. ... For a description of the medieval homage ceremony see commendation ceremony Homage is generally used in modern English to mean any public show of respect to someone to whom you feel indebted. ...

Allusive substitutions are as old as English: see kenning. Allusion is an economical device, a figure of speech that draws upon the ready stock of ideas or emotion already associated with a topic in a relatively short space. Thus, an allusion is understandable only to those with prior knowledge of the covert reference in question. (See cultural literacy...) In literature, a kenning is a poetic phrase, a figure of speech, substituted for the usual name of a person or thing. ... A figure of speech, sometimes termed a rhetoric, or locution, is a word or phrase that departs from straightforward, literal language. ... ntent creators will assume the audience already possesses. ...


A sobriquet is an allusion: by metonymy one aspect of a person or other referent is selected to identify it, and it is this shared aspect that makes an allusion evocative. In an allusion to "the city that never sleeps", New York will be recognized. Recognizing the figure in this condensed puzzle-disguise[3] additionally serves to reinforce cultural solidarity between the maker of the remark and the hearer: their shared familiarity with The Big Apple bonds them. [4] Some aspect of the referent must be invoked and identified, in order for the tacit association to be made; the allusion is indirect in part because "it depends on something more than mere substitution of a referent"[5] The allusion depends as well on the author's intent; an industrious reader may search out parallels to a figure of speech or a passage, of which the author under examination was unaware, and offer them as unconscious allusions— coincidences that a critic might not find illuminating. Addressing such issues is an aspect of hermeneutics. A sobriquet is a nickname or a fancy name, usually a familiar name given by others as distinct from a pseudonym assumed as a disguise, but a nickname which is familiar enough such that it can be used in place of a real name without the need of explanation. ... In rhetoric, metonymy is the substitution of one word for another word with which it is associated. ... Hermeneutics may be described as the development and study of theories of the interpretation and understanding of texts. ...

William Irwin remarks that allusion moves in only one direction: "If A alludes to B, then B does not allude to A. The Bible does not allude to Shakespeare, though Shakespeare may allude to the Bible." Irwin appends a note: "Only a divine author, outside of time, would seem capable of alluding to a later text."[6] This is the basis for Christian readings of Old Testament prophecy, which asserts that passages are to be read as allusions to future events. Bible prophecy, or biblical prophecy is the belief that the exegesis and hermeneutics that relate to those scriptures containing various prophecies regarding global politics, natural disasters, the future of the nation of Israel, the coming of a Messiah and a Messianic Kingdom, and the ultimate destiny of humankind are true. ...

Types of allusion

In Homer, brief allusions could be made to mythic themes of generations previous to the main narrative because they were already familiar to the epic's hearers: one example is the theme of the Calydonian boarhunt. In Hellenistic Alexandria, literary culture and a fixed literary canon known to readers and hearers, made a densely allusive poetry effective; the poems of Callimachus offer the best-known examples..., This article is about the Greek poet Homer and the works attributed to him. ... The Calydonian Hunt shown on a Roman frieze (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) The Calydonian Boar is one of a genre of chthonic monsters in Greek mythology, each set in a specific locale, which must be overcome by heroes of the Olympian age. ... The term Hellenistic (established by the German historian Johann Gustav Droysen) in the history of the ancient world is used to refer to the shift from a culture dominated by ethnic Greeks, however scattered geographically, to a culture dominated by Greek-speakers of whatever ethnicity, and from the political dominance... The Western canon is a canon of books and art, and specifically a set with very loose boundaries of books and other art, that has allegedly been highly influential in shaping Western culture. ... Callimachus (Greek: , 310 BC/305 BC-240 BC) was a native of Cyrene, Libya. ...

In discussing the richly allusive poetry of Virgil's Georgics, R.F. Thomas[7] distinguished six categories of allusive reference, which are applicable to a wider cultural sphere. These types are 1) Casual Reference, "the use of language which recalls a specific antecedent, but only in a general sense" that is relatively unimportant to the new context; 2) Single Reference, in which the hearer or reader is intended to "recall the context of the model and apply that context to the new situation"; such a specific single reference in Virgil, according to Thomas, is a means of "making connections or conveying ideas on a level of intense subtlety"; 3) Self-Reference, where the locus is in the poet's own work; 4) Corrective Allusion, where the imitation is clearly in opposition to the original source's intentions; 5) Apparent Reference ""which seems clearly to recall a specific model but which on closer inspection frustrates that intention" and 6) Multiple Reference or Conflation, which refers in various ways simultaneously to several sources, fusing and transforming the cultural traditions. For other uses, see Virgil (disambiguation). ... Georgics Book III, Shepherd with Flocks, Vatican The Georgics, published in 29 BC, is the second major work by the Latin poet Virgil. ...

Allusion differs from the similar term intertextuality in that it is an intentional effort on the author's part. The success of an allusion depends in part on at least some of its audience "getting" it. Allusions may be made increasingly obscure, until at last they are understood by the author alone, who thereby retreats into a private language. Intertextuality is the shaping of texts meanings by other texts. ... This page is a candidate for speedy deletion. ...

A literature has grown round explorations of the allusions in Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock or T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland For other uses, see Alexander Pope (disambiguation). ... The New Star, Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley for The Rape of the Lock The Rape of the Lock is a mock-heroic poem written by Alexander Pope, first published in 1712 in two cantos, and then reissued in 1714 in a much-expanded 5-canto version. ... For other persons named Thomas Eliot, see Thomas Eliot (disambiguation). ... The Waste Land is a 433-line poem by T. S. Eliot. ...

Martin Luther King, Jr., alluded to the Gettysburg Address in starting his "I Have a Dream" speech by saying 'Five score years ago..."; his hearers were immediately reminded of Abraham Lincoln's "Four score and seven years ago", which opened the Gettysburg Address. King's allusion effectively called up parallels in two historic moments. Martin Luther King, Jr. ... The only confirmed photo of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg (seated), taken about noon, just after Lincoln arrived and some three hours before he spoke. ... Martin Luther King, Jr. ... For other uses, see Abraham Lincoln (disambiguation). ...

An allusion may become trite and stale through unthinking overuse, devolving into a mere cliché, as in some of the following examples: To meet Wikipedias quality standards, this article or section may require cleanup. ...

15 minutes of fame

Andy Warhol, a twentieth-century American man most famous for his pop-art images of Campbell soup cans and Marilyn Monroe, commented about the explosion of media coverage by saying, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes." Andrew Warhola (August 6, 1928 — February 22, 1987), better known as Andy Warhol, was an American artist who was a central figure in the movement known as Pop art. ... Campbell Soup Company (NYSE: CPB) (also known as Campbells) is a well-known American producer of canned soups and related products. ... Marilyn Monroe (born Norma Jeane Mortenson;[1] June 1, 1926 – August 5, 1962), was a Golden Globe-winning[2] American actress, singer, model, Hollywood icon,[3] cultural icon, fashion icon,[4] pop icon, film executive and sex symbol. ...

Today, when someone receives a great deal of media attention for something fairly trivial, and he or she is said to be experiencing his/her “15 minutes of fame”, the allusion is to Andy Warhol's famous saying. 15 minutes of fame (or famous for 15 minutes) is an expression coined by the American artist Andy Warhol. ...


This phrase comes from a novel by Joseph Heller. Catch-22 is set on a U.S. Army Air Force base in World War II. The “catch-22” refers to a regulation that states an airman’s request to be relieved from flight duty and it can only be granted if he is judged to be insane. However, anyone who does not want to fly dangerous missions is obviously sane. Thus, there is no way to avoid flying the missions. Joseph Heller (May 1, 1923 – December 12, 1999) was an American satirical novelist and playwright. ... Catch 22 can refer to: A book by Joseph Heller, or the movie based on the book; see Catch-22. ... USAAF recruitment poster. ... Combatants Allied powers: China France Great Britain Soviet Union United States and others Axis powers: Germany Italy Japan and others Commanders Chiang Kai-shek Charles de Gaulle Winston Churchill Joseph Stalin Franklin Roosevelt Adolf Hitler Benito Mussolini Hideki Tōjō Casualties Military dead: 17,000,000 Civilian dead: 33,000...

Later in the book the old Woman in Rome explains that Catch-22 means, "They can do whatever they want to do." This refers to the theme of the novel in which the authority figures consitently are abusing their powers, leaving the consequences to those in their command.

A “Catch-22” has come to mean, in common speech, an absurd or no-win situation.

T. S. Eliot and James Joyce

The poetry of T. S. Eliot is often described as "allusive", because of his habit of referring to names, places or images that may only make sense in the light of prior knowledge. This technique can add to the experience, but for the uninitiated can make Eliot's work seem dense and hard to decipher. The most densely allusive work in modern English is Finnegans Wake. Joseph Campbell, Henry Morton Robinson and Edmund L. Epstein provided A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1944) that unlocked some of James Joyce's most obscure allusions. For other persons named Thomas Eliot, see Thomas Eliot (disambiguation). ... For the street ballad which the novel is named after, see Finnegans Wake. ... A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1944) by mythologist Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson is an important work of literary criticism. ... This article is about the writer and poet. ...


  1. ^ Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms 1971, s.v. "Allusion".
  2. ^ William Irwin, "What Is an Allusion?" The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 59.3 (Summer 2001:287-297
  3. ^ The etymology of allusion links its origin in the Latin verb ludere, lusus est "to play with, jest".
  4. ^ Ted Cohen finds such a "cultivation of intimacy" to be an essential element of many jokes (Cohen, Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters [University of Chicago Press] 1999:28f) Irwin 2001:note 8 noted the parallel.
  5. ^ Irwin 2001:288
  6. ^ Irwin 2001:289 and note 22.
  7. ^ R.F. Thomas, "Virgil's Georgics and the art of reference" Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 90 (1986) pp 171-98.
A joke is a short story or short series of words spoken or communicated with the intent of being laughed at or found humorous by the listener or reader. ...

  Results from FactBites:
Allusion in Prose and Poetry ....................... (798 words)
An allusion is a literary device that stimulates ideas, associations, and extra information in the reader's mind with only a word or two.
Allusions are commonly made to the Bible, nursery rhymes, myths, famous fictional or historical characters or events, and Shakespeare.
In general, the use of allusions by an author shows an expectation that the reader is familiar with the references made, otherwise the effect is lost.
  More results at FactBites »



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