Since the word “zeugma” finds its place in various lists of rhetorical devices, in the appendices to textbooks on Latin, and toward the ends of most dictionaries, you might think it would be pretty easy to figure out what it means. When I went to look it up, however, I found that there are hardly two books that agree on the meaning of this seemingly simple term. I therefore undertook a comprehensive investigation of this little word, and wrote up what I found.
The sources I used to investigate the meanings of the word “zeugma” were: Smyth’s Greek Grammar (a Greek grammar), Fowler’s Modern English Usage (a quirky book about various topics relating to the English language), Pharr’s edition of Virgil’s Aeneid, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Tenth Edition), and two online lists of rhetorical devices, the first called Silva Rhetoricae (The Forest of Rhetoric), the second found on the website of Brown University (http://www.brown.edu/Departments/English/curriculum/el31/rhetfig/alph.html), there given the title “English 31”, but which I henceforth shall simply call “Brown”. (The site no longer exists.)
The word zeugma means “yoking”. A yoke is a thing you use to tie two oxen together (so that they will work together); so too zeugma in all its various definitions has the idea of putting two (or more) words together in common subordination to one governing word.
In Latin class, we are taught that the term “zeugma” refers to a construction whereby one word governs or modifies two others, but is in one case to be taken in a literal, in the other in a metaphorical, sense, as in the phrase, “He lost his car-keys and his mind.” The two words “car-keys” and “mind” are both direct objects of the verb “lost”. But obviously one does not lose car-keys in the same sense that one loses one’s mind; the verb has two different meanings with its two different objects.
This meaning for “zeugma” is supported only by Webster’s dictionary, of all the sources abovce. The example there given is, “She opened the door and her heart to the homeless boy.” However the definition is much broader, and could take in sentences of very different types. According to Webster’s, zeugma is “the use of a word to modify or govern two or more words usually in such a manner that it applies to each in a different sense or makes sense with only one”. Owing to the words “usually” and “or”, this is the broadest definition of all that I found; the others merely restrict zeugma to this or that part of it.
Smyth, Fowler, and Pharr all insist that the word zeugma is appropriate only if the governing (or yoking) word makes sense with only one of the words it governs. Fowler gives the example from Pope: “See Pan with flocks, with fruits Pomona crowned” (at the entry, “syllepsis and zeugma”). Pan cannot be crowned with flocks, although he may be, for example, surrounded by them. Pharr’s example comes from Virgil: Danaos et laxat claustra, “He opens the Greeks and the barriers”. He opened the barriers, but not the Greeks: the Greeks he set free. In all these examples, the yoking verb has two direct objects, but only makes sense with one of them, although it suggests the verb that must be supplied with the other.
But if the governing word makes sense with both the words its governs, taken once literally, once figuratively, then, Smyth and Fowler insist, it must be named syllepsis (or “taking together”). (Pharr does not mention syllepsis.) Fowler gives an example from Dickens: “Miss Bolo went home in a flood of tears and a sedan chair.” This is what in Latin class we learn as “zeugma”. Fowler notes that syllepsis and zeugma “are two figures of speech distinguished by scholars, but sometimes confused in use, the second and more familiar word being applied to both.”
Incidentally, I just looked up syllepsis and zeugma in the Peguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Its definitions are the exact opposite of Smyth’s. It in fact gives two of the exact same examples as Fowler, but applies them to the opposite devices; so that Miss Bolo is considered an example of zeugma, which vindicates our Latin class usage.
As to Webster’s, the definition there is sufficiently broad to take in Smyth’s zeugma and his syllepsis too. For the word syllepsis, it has two definitions of its own. One of them agrees with Smyth’s (so that syllepsis may be considered a subset of zeugma, according to Webster’s); the other is as follows: “the use of a word to modify or govern syntactically two or sometimes more words with only one of which it formally agrees in gender, number, or case.” This other definition will come up again later.
Consider as a contrary example the sentence “You’ve lost your car-keys and you’ve lost your mind, but you’ll never lose my love!” The word “lost” is taken in a different sense each time, but it is also repeated each time. We have a similar play on words, but not a zeugma/syllepsis.
Silva Rhetoricae and Brown have a rather different definition of zeugma. Here the word refers to a yoking-together of several clauses onto only one verb, as in “Some people love cats, and others, dogs.” The verb is taken in its literal sense both times. This is fundamentally different from a sentence of the type, “He lost his car-keys and his mind,” and not just because here the verb has two different senses. I might change the sentence to “He lost his car-keys and his wallet,” and here, though we have the same sense of the verb both times, the sentence would still not make an example of what Silva Rhetoricae calls zeugma. The car-keys example has two objects but only one subject; it is only one clause, there is no yoking. In the cat-dog example, however, there are in effect two clauses; I might have said instead, “Some people love cats, and others love dogs,” but instead I left out the repeated “love”, letting it be understood twice though it appears only once. Zeugma under this definition is thus somewhat similar to Fowler’s “zeugma” (though not our Latin class “zeugma”), in that one verb spreads out its force over two clauses, with the difference that here the verb makes good sense the whole time.
This sort of zeugma is especially frequent with the verb to be, as in “The grass was warm, the air soft and humid.” I might also have said, “The grass was warm, and the air WAS soft and humid,” but instead I left out the repeated “was” (and the word “and”). This omission is pretty regular. I also include an example to the contrary, where the verb is repeated. In “modern plays”: “... probability is violated, life is misrepresented, and language is depraved” (Samuel Johnson, Preface to Shakespeare). If Johnson had instead written, “probabilty is violated, life misrepresented, and language depraved” we would have an example of Silva Rhetoricae’s zeugma.
Silva Rhetoricae and Brown further subdivide this sort of zeugma into three types: prozeugma, mesozeugma, and hypozeugma, according to where the yoking word is placed in relation to the words it yokes. The sentences above have all been examples of prozeugma, with the yoking word coming in the first clause. Another example of prozeugma: “In all probability, I’ll lose my virility, and you your fertility and desirability” (Tom Lehrer, in the song When You Are Old and Gray).
Hypozeugma is when the yoking word comes at the end. Two examples: (Aeneas speaking of Italy) hic amor, haec patria est (Virgil, Aeneid IV.347) “This my love, this my fatherland is,” i.e. “This IS my love, this is my fatherland.” And from Pope: “Now Leaves the Trees, now Flow’rs adorn the Ground” (Pastorals: Spring 43), i.e. “Now leaves adorn the trees, now flowers adorn the ground.”
Mesozeugma is when the yoking word comes in the middle, with some yoked elements preceding, and others following. “Some people, cats, others love dogs, and still others, canaries (though I don’t know why).” An example from Horace (of his own poetry):
quod non imber edax, non Aquilo inpotens
possit diruere, aut innumerabilis
annorum series et fuga temporum.
“What not even the devouring rain, not even the powerless north-wind is able destroy, or the countless series of the years and the flight of time.”
If the verb agrees with only one of the subjects, then Brown calls this construction syllepsis (which agrees with the other definition in Webster’s of that word: I promised you you would see it again). If we went through each clause and supplied the missing verb, it would have a different form in each one. So Virgil: hic illius arma, hic currus fuit (Aeneid 1.16-17), “Here her arms, here her chariot was”. The expanded form would read “Here her arms WERE, here her chariot was.” An example from Pope:
These swell their Prospects and exalt their Pride,
When Offers are disdain’d, and Love deny’d. (The Rape of the Lock, I.81-2)
When love IS denied.
Silva Rhetoricae, however, does not make this distinction, giving syllepsis the same definition as does Smyth. It does, however, provide a note that seems to agree with Brown: “Originally, syllepsis named that grammatical incongruity resulting when a word governing two or more others could not agree with both or all of them; for example, when a singular verb serves as the predicate to two subjects, singular and plural ("His boat and his riches is sinking").” But, I suppose, if the sentence had been, “The boat and the island is sinking,” we would have called it zeugma; and if it had been, “The boat and the island are sinking,” there would have been no trick at all, just a compound subject. Carrying the distinctions to so fine a point becomes absurd. If the sentence had been “The boat and his dream are sinking” we would have what Fowler calls syllepsis (but what all our Latin classes have called zeugma); in “The boat and his dream is sinking,” the two zeugmas of Latin class and of Silva Rhetoricae meet; in “The boat and his dreams is sinking,” we have one example of Fowler’s syllepsis, and one of Silva Rhetoricae’s! In the sentence “The boats and his dreams are sinking,” we have without a doubt Fowler’s syllepsis (Latin class zeugma); but is there a Silva Rhetoricae-style zeugma, or merely a compound subject? That is, does the sentence stand for The boats ARE SINKING and his dreams are sinking, or not?
A related figure is diazeugma, where several clauses are yoked by a common subject. E.g. (of the spirits that fly around Belinda):
These, though unseen, are ever on the Wing,
Hang o’er the Box, and hover round the Ring. (Pope, The Rape of the Lock, I.43-4)
The three verbs “are”, “hang”, and “hover”, all share the same subject “these”.
Another figure, called “hypozeuxis”, may be regarded as the opposite of zeugma. Here, in a chain of several parallel clauses, each clause has its own subject and verb. There is no yoking at all. An example from Pope:
When kind Occasion prompts their warm Desires,
When Music softens, and when Dancing fires (The Rape of the Lock, I. 75-6)
I have put the parallel subjects in bold, and the parallel verbs in italics.
This latest definition of zeugma, with all its subclasses, is very different from that found in Smyth, Fowler, and Pharr, who, meanwhile, have their own terms to describe this “yoking," such as "brachylogy" and "ellipsis". But that is material for another day.