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An antiphrasis is a way of making people smile of laugh as a result of leading them to expect one thing but then suggesting something else. For example, if one were to speak of a basketball player who is "an impressive eight feet short", this would be an antiphrasis; and it would also be funny, firstly because no one uses the term short in this way, and secondly because virtually no one is eight feet tall. 

Introduction to antiphrasis

Antiphrasis is a literary device which uses words or phrases to convey the opposite sense of their real meanings. As a figure of speech, the word or phrase is used in a way that is completely opposite to its literal meaning, which creates either irony or a comic effect in the sentence. The word or phrase the sentence is conveying may be indicated by one or more sentences which gradually change the original meaning of the word or phrase in questions. Antiphrasis is derived from the Greek word antiphrasis, in which anti means “against” and phrasis means “diction.” The first known use of antiphrasis was in 1533.

Antiphrasis examples

Antiphrasis is dependent upon the words used according to an author, the only rule is that a word or phrase is indicated in the first sentence, and then its meaning gradually or immediately changes to its opposite. Some simple examples of antiphrasis are:

1. He’s only a child; 60 years old!

2. “Get in the car, little man,” she said to her tall friend.

3. I bought a short essay from Ultius; It's only 90 pages!

4. His long hair could not be pulled into a ponytail.

For example, the following text from the novel Filthy Rich by Dorothy Samuels is an example of antiphrasis: “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…” In this sentence, Samuels calls Frank’s sounds “dulcet,” meaning “generally pleasing or agreeable.” In the same sentence, however, Samuels notes that Frank was actually yelling, ringing the doorbell, and pounding on the door of the character’s apartment – none of these sounds are dulcet in nature. The resulting effect is one of disgruntled irony or comedy.

In Oyster Blues, Michael McClelland describes his character Thomas Theodore Puglowski sarcastically using antiphrasis: “He looked like a Vulcan fresh emerged from his forge, a misshapen giant…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...”

Antiphrasis defined

Antiphrasis is a stylistic literary and rhetorical device, meant to alter the most straightforward meanings of words; as such, it is a way to play with words and conform them to an author or speaker’s preferred meaning. In this way, antiphrasis brings original and unique meanings to words or phrases which a reader might believe to be set in stone. Therefore it is an excellent choice for writers seeking to push the envelope of meaning in a particular text or meaning.

Besides creating new meanings, antiphrasis can draw a reader more deeply into a situation or text by piquing interest or allowing the reader to think of a familiar situation in an unusual or new way. Antiphrasis is the ideal tool of a writer who wishes to convey tradition scenarios, characters, and plots in a new way, and a vehicle for self-expression. Antiphrasis was used consistently in detective pulp fiction in the seventies, and continues today through the use of irony, sarcasm and wit. Antiphrasis descriptions bring characters and situations closer to real life, encouraging readers to envision them more clearly. The use of opposite meanings also ensures that the reader clearly understands the underlying meanings of the words and phrases in use; antiphrasis defines a thing or person by what it is not.

This method of using verbal irony is common in English language, and used very often in modern writing, speeches, and theater.

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