The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Periphrasis: Circumlocution, that is, a roundabout way of speaking or writing. As a rhetorical figure, periphrasis may be used to avoid mundane expression or for emphasis, euphemistic purposes, or comic effect. An element of poetic diction, periphrasis has historically been viewed as a means of elevating language and distinguishing it from prose. Since the eighteenth century, however, the figure has fallen out of favor, and today the term is often used pejoratively to designate the pompous or wordy.

EXAMPLES: U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s 1983 characterization of a lie as a “terminological inexactitude.” William Shakespeare used comic periphrasis to describe lies in Much Ado About Nothing (1599). Constable Dogberry, when asked “What offense have these men done?” replies:

Marry, sir, they have committed false report; moreover, they have spoken untruths; secondarily, they are slanders; sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady; thirdly, they have verified unjust things; and, to conclude, they are lying knaves.

Although some critics have described as poetic the following passage from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), others have found it a wordy and pompous way of saying that a jarring memory suddenly intruded upon the mysterious stillness of the present:

There were moments when one’s past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare to yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder, amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.