Word Play: Adynaton

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, October 18th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. It’s time now for Word Play, and this month George Grant tells us about a kind of exaggeration that I have to confess I used a lot when my kids were young.

GEORGE GRANT, COMMENTATOR: An Adynaton is a kind of hyperbole, though in its most extreme form—exaggerated from fantastic incredulity to utter impossibility. It is from a Greek word that means “exceedingly improbable,” “wildly impractical,” or “altogether impossible.” It is a rhetorical device used to heighten, embellish, or amplify a contrast or comparison. 

We’re using adynaton when we say, “It is raining cats and dogs.” Or, “I am so hungry I could eat a horse.” Or, “That’ll happen when Hell freezes over.” Or, “It’s like pulling hen’s teeth.” Or, “It’s slower than molasses in January.” Or, “That’s harder than herding cats.”

Adynaton is a common feature in traditional legends, folklore, riddles, and proverbs—and was often used by Medieval troubadours and jongleurs in their romantic ballads, boasting of the unending, undying power of love. 

The Roman philosopher Seneca ably used adynaton asserting, “One can expect agreement between philosophers sooner than between clocks.” And, Plutarch’s “Eclogue” contains a list of ancient proverbs—the first section of which he calls, “Impossibilia,” sayings that turn on adynaton.

Though some commentators have attempted to find alternate interpretations, it is likely that Jesus was using adynaton in Mark 10, saying, “‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. 

The disciples were exceedingly astonished, and said to Him, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus said, ‘with men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.’”

Shakespeare used adynaton to emphasize the weight of guilt felt by Macbeth. Following his murder of King Duncan, he declared even the oceans were insufficient to wash the blood from his hands: “Whence is that knocking? How is it with me when every noise appalls me? What hands are here? Ha! They pluck out mine eyes. Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? Alas, no.”

The other day, I was reading a picture-book to my grandchildren and came across this delightful string of adynatons: “It was a week of four Thursdays and the pig in yellow slippers climbed up the pear tree.”

Though not used as often as it once was, surely adynaton remains useful. How else can we appropriately describe the possibility of civil political discourse or the prospects for bipartisanship than to assert: “when pigs fly!”

For WORLD Radio, I’m George Grant.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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