syllepsis /sɪˈlɛpsɪs/

There’s small gem of a movie starring Mike Myers and Nancy Travers called So I Married An Axe Murderer, which borders on being a cult offering and contains prescient hints of the hit Austin Powers series. It’s a fluffy romantic comedy set in San Francisco with Myers playing Charlie Mackenzie, an aspiring poet and Travers is Harriet Michaels, the daughter of a butcher.

So I Married an Axe Murderer

So I Married an Axe Murderer

As well as being the inspiration for an incident where The Word Guy danced with a friend through the aisles of a small grocery store in San Francisco’s Russian Hill district, it also provides a splendid example of the linguistic phenomenon known as syllepsis. This is where two or more parts of a sentence are yoked together by a common verb or noun, more often than not for humorous effect. The example in So I Married An Axe Murderer is a line from a poem written by Charlie for Harriet; “She was a thief, you gotta believe, she stole my heart and my cat.”

The syllepsis here is in the last phrase, where the word stole is used to refer both to heart and cat. The meaning of the sylleptic word changes relative to the nouns. In this instance, the first gloss is related to the phrase to steal someone’s heart, which doesn’t mean literally ripping a beating heart from someone’s chest like an Aztec sacrifice but to cause someone to fall deeply in love with another. The second gloss is, indeed, the literal meaning of the word steal in that the cat is physically taken without consent.

According to the OED, syllepsis is a figure of speech where “a word, or a particular form or inflexion (sic)  of a word, is made to refer to two or more other words in the same sentence, while properly applying to or agreeing with only one of them.” (OED, Vol. XVII, p. 446).

The Greek origin is the word σύλληψις, which in turn is derived from the prefix, σύν- meaning together or with, and λῆψις meaning taking. Thus, the notion is that the sylleptic word and those it refers to are “taken together.”

Charles Dickens was not above using a little sylleptic humor in The posthumous papers of the Pickwick Club when he wrote “She went straight home in a flood of tears and a sedan chair[1],” and Alexander Pope in The Rape of the Lock said of Queen Anne;

“Here thou art, Great Anna, whom three realms obey,
Dost sometimes counsel take – and sometimes tea.”

The Rolling Stones offer an example of what I’d call a semi-syllepsis in their song, Honky Tonk Woman, where they sing, “”She blew my nose and then she blew my mind.” To be truly sylleptic, Mick and Keith should have tossed out that second blew. However, this would clearly have changed the meter of the song so I guess it was more a prosodic decision than a grammatical one.

Syllepsis is related to another word – zeugma. For some, it is simply a synonym; for others, it is a sub-type of several different zeugmas. I’ll leave that discussion for another day.

I’ll stop here because I think I’m out of time and imagination.


[1] Full quote: “All these things combined with the noises and interruptions of constant comings in and goings out made Mr Pickwick play rather badly. The cards were against him also and when they left off at ten minutes past eleven Miss Bolo rose from the table considerably agitated and went straight home in a flood of tears and a sedan chair.”

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