Tuesday, June 3, 2008

WOTD: Anacoluthon

Inspired by Omniglot, I’ve decided to start periodically posting a Word of the Day. However, unlike those on Omniglot, I intend to limit myself to English words. Well, more or less. I mean, how English are most English words, really? Case in point, today’s word: anacoluthon.

Not in most people’s vocabulary, I daresay. Nor was it in mine; I had to look it up. Rather amazingly, the spell-check in Microsoft Word apparently knows the word! So what does it mean?

Those familiar with Greek combing forms might be able to make a guess at the meaning, as I attempted to do — with some small success. The forms in question suggest a meaning along the lines of “not following, not on the path.” Another hint: the relatively common English word acolyte, with its meaning of “following, on the path”, is more or less antonymic to it. Some of you might also guess it’s a term used in rhetoric, grammar, or linguistics, as are so many of these direct Greek borrowings.

So what does it really mean? It’s a grammatical construction in which the end of the sentence does not match up grammatically to the beginning. For instance, “the professor was talking about — I couldn’t really understand him at all,” or “I warned him that if he continues to drink, what will become of him?” Technically speaking, such a thing should suggest a poor command of grammar; however, by giving it a sesquipedalian name, one can call it a deliberate rhetorical effect. :)

Does anybody actually use this word?! Well, how do you think I came across it? In June 1911, in the King Edward’s School Debating Society Report, the young J.R.R. Tolkien is described as:

An energetic Secretary who does not consider that his duties excuse him from speaking. Has displayed great zeal in arranging meetings throughout the session and considerable ingenuity in advertising them. He is an eccentric humorist who has made many excellent speeches, at times rather burdened with anacolutha. Made one valiant attempt to revive Beowulfic oratory. [1]

Since Tolkien was the Secretary of the Debating Society, I think one can presume this description was self-imposed, tongue in cheek. Certainly the use of the plural anacolutha, as well as the eponymic adjective Beowulfic, suggest Tolkien might have been the author. That he was only 19 years old makes the use of this rare word all the more remarkable. Or at least, it would be remarkable today. Can you imagine the word on the lips of Paris Hilton or Britney Spears, for example? Their public speeches are certainly full of such anacolutha; however, I think it’s safe to say that any rhetorical effects were uninentional. ;)

[1] King Edward’s School Chronicle, Vol. XXVI, No. 187 (June 1911), p. 46.


  1. Tolkien also used the word in "The Notion Club Papers":

    "'Yes,' said Guildford. 'But there are more serious faults than his anacolutha and split infinitives that may also get passed, if the thing's allowed to harden" (Sauron Defeated, p. 162).

  2. Well, well, well. Excellent find, N.E. Brigand!

    I’ve read The Notion Club Papers myself, of course, and as recently as 2005. I guess it shows that the word, unless one can find a use for it, isn’t likely to take root in one’s vocabulary! I suppose I must have looked it up at least once before, years ago, but it seems to have completely slipped my mind.

    But it didn’t slip Tolkien’s mind, did it? We see him using it in 1911, and then again almost forty years later. Amazing!