Periphrasis is a device which, according to Webster's dictionary, denotes the use of a longer phrasing in place of a possible shorter and plainer form of expression. It is also called circumlocution due to the round-about or indirect way used to name a familiar object or phenomenon. Viewed from the angle of its linguistic nature, periphrasis represents the renaming of an object and as such may be considered along with a more general group of word designations replacing the direct names of their denotata. One and the same object may be identified in different ways and accordingly acquire different appelations. Thus, in different situations a certain person can be denoted, for instance, as either 'his benefactor', or 'this bore', or 'the narrator', or 'the wretched witness', etc. These names will be his only in a short fragment of the discourse, the criterion of their choice being furnished by the context. Such naming units may be called secondary, textually-confined designations and are generally composed of a word-combination.
This device has a long history. It was widely used in the Bible and in Homer's Iliad. As a poetic device it was very popular in Latin poetry (Virgil). Due to this influence it became an important feature of epic and descriptive poetry throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. It is due to this practice of re-naming things that periphrasis became one of the most favoured devices in the 17th and 18th centuries giving birth even to a special trend in literature in France and other countries called periphrastic. There exists in English a whole battery of phrases which are still used as periphrastic synonyms (see below) for ordinary denominations of things and phenomena.
V. N. Yartseva quotes S. K. Workman, an English literature scholar who states that "the most pervasive element in the aureate style—and the most vitiating—was periphrasis." Prof. Yartseva states that the use of periphrasis in the 16th century was in the nature of embellishment, thus justifying the attribute aureate, and that periphrasis became a feature of a definite literary style.1
As a SD periphrasis aims at pointing to one of the seemingly insignificant or barely noticeable features or properties of the given object, and intensifies this property by naming the object by the property. Periphrasis makes the reader perceive the new appellation against the background of the one existing in the language code and the twofold simultaneous perception secures the stylistic effect. At the same time periphrasis, like simile, has a certain cognitive function inasmuch as it deepens our knowledge of the phenomenon described. The essence of the device is that it is decipherable only in context. If a periphrastic locution is understandable outside the context, it is not a stylistic device but merely a synonymous expression. Such easily decipherable periphrases are also called traditional, dictionary or language periphrases. The others are speech periphrases. Here are examples of well-known dictionary periphrases (periphrastic synonyms):
the cap and gown (student body); a gentleman of the long robe (a lawyer); the fair sex (women); my better half (my wife).
Most periphrastic synonyms are strongly associated with the sphere of their application and the epoch they were used in. Feudalism, for example, gave birth to a cluster of periphrastic synonyms of the word king, as: the leader of hosts; the giver of rings; the protector of earls; the victor lord. A play of swords meant 'a battle'; a battle-seat was 'a saddle'; a shield-bearer was 'a warrior'.
Traditional, language or dictionary periphrases and the words they stand for are synonyms by nature, the periphrasis being expressed by a word-combination. Periphrasis as a stylistic device is a new, genuine nomination of an object, a process which realizes the power of language to coin new names for objects by disclosing some quality of the object, even though it may be transitory, and making it alone represent the object. Here are some such stylistic periphrases:
"I understand you are poor, and wish to earn money by nursing the little boy, my son, who has been so prematurely deprived of what can never be replaced." (Dickens)
The object clause 'what can never, be replaced' is a periphrasis for the word mother. The concept is easily understood by the reader within the given context, the latter being the only code which makes the deciphering of the phrase possible. This is sufficiently proved by a simple transformational operation, viz. taking the phrase out of its context. The meaning of 'what can never be replaced' used independently will bear no reference to the concept mother and may be interpreted in many ways. The periphrasis here expresses a very individual idea of the concept.
Here is another stylistic periphrasis which the last phrase in the sentence deciphers:
"And Harold stands upon the place of skulls,
The grave of France, the deadly Waterloo." (Byron)
In the following:
"The hoarse, dull drum would sleep* .;.h And Man be happy yet." (Byron)
the periphrasis can only be understood from a larger context, referring to the concept war. 'The hoarse, dull drum' is a metonymical periphrasis for war.
In some cases periphrasis is regarded as a demerit and should have no place in good, precise writing. This kind of periphrasis is generally called circumlocution. Thus Richard Altick states that one of the ways of obscuring truth "...is the use of circumlocutions and euphemisms." A round-about way of speaking about common things sometimes has an unnecessarily bombastic, pompous air and consequently is devoid of any aesthetic value. That is why periphrasis has gained the reputation of leading to redundancy of expression. Here is an example of the excessive use of periphrasis by such an outstanding classic English writer as Dickens:
"The lamp-lighter made his nightly failure in attempting to brighten up the street with gas (= lit the street lamps)."
In spite of the danger of being called "blasphemer", I venture to state that Dickens favoured redundant periphrastic expressions, seeing in them a powerful means to impose on his readers his own assessment of events and people. Here is another of his periphrases:
"But an addition to the little party now made its appearance (= another person came in)."
In characterizing the individual manner of a bad writer, V. G. Belinsky says:
"One is particularly struck by the art he displays in the use of periphrasis: one and the same thought, simple and empty as, for example, 'wooden tables are made of wood', drags along in a string of long sentences, periods, tropes and figures of speech; he turns it around and around, extends it pages long and sprinkles it with punctuation marks. Everything is so flowery, everywhere there is such an abundance of epithets and imagery that the inexperienced reader marvels at these 'purple patches' of jeweled prose,— and his fascination vanishes only when he puts a question to himself as to the content of the flamboyant article: for to his surprise in lieu of any content he finds mere woolly phrases and fluffy self-conceit. This kind of writing often appears in the West, particularly since the West began to rot; here in Russia where authorship has not yet become a habit, such phenomena are hardly possible."3
The means supplied to enable the reader to decipher stylistic periphrasis are very subtle and have aesthetic value. In the following example the word of address is the key to the periphrasis:
"Papa, love. I am a mother. I have a child who will soon call Walter by the name by which I call you." (Dickens)
In some cases the author relies entirely on the erudition of the reader to decipher the periphrasis. Thus in the following example:
"Of his four sons, only two could be found sufficiently without the 'e' to go on making ploughs." (Galsworthy)
The letter 'e' in some proper names is considered an indirect indication of noble or supposed noble descent, cf. Moreton and Morton, Smythe and Smith, Browne and Brown, Wilde (Oscar) and Wyld (Cecil). The italicized phrase is a roundabout way of stating that two of his sons were unaristocratic enough to work at making ploughs.
Genuine poetical periphrasis sometimes depicts the effect without mentioning the cause, gives particulars when having in view the general, points out one trait which will represent the whole. Stylistic periphrasis, it must be repeated, like almost all lexical stylistic means, must efficiently and intentionally introduce a dichotomy, in this case the dichotomy of two designations for one object or idea. If it fails to do so, there is no stylistic device, only a hackneyed phrase.
Periphrases, once original but now hackneyed, are often to be found in newspaper language. Mr. J. Donald Adams, who has written a number of articles and books on the use of English words in different contexts, says in one of his articles:
"We are all familiar with these examples of distended English, and I shall pause for only one, quoted by Theodore M. Bernstein, who as assistant managing editor of this newspaper acts as guardian over the English employed in its news columns. It appears in his recent book, "Watch Your Language", and reads "Improved financial support and less onerous work loads." Translation (by Clifton Daniel): "High pay and less work."1
Here is another example of a well-known, traditional periphrasis which has become established as a periphrastic synonym:
"After only a short time of marriage, he wasn't prepared to offer advice to other youngsters intending to tie the knot... But, he said, he's looking forward to having a family." (From a newspaper article)
Here we have a periphrasis meaning to marry (to tie the knot). It has long been hackneyed and may be called a cliché. The difference between a cliché and a periphrastic synonym lies in the degree to which the periphrasis has lost its vigour. In clichés we still sense the dichotomy of the original clash between the words forming a semantic unity; in periphrastic synonyms the clash is no longer felt unless the synonyms are subjected to etymological analysis.
In such collocations as 'I am seeing things', or 'I'm hearing bells' we hardly ever perceive the novelty of the phrases and are apt to understand them for what they stand for now in modern colloquial English, i.e. to have hallucinations. Therefore these phrases must be recognized as periphrastic colloquial synonyms of the concepts delirium or hallucinations.
Stylistic periphrasis can also be divided into logical and figurative. Logical periphrasis is based on one of the inherent properties or perhaps a passing feature of the object described, as in instruments of destruction (Dickens) ='pistols'; the most pardonable of human weaknesses (Dickens) ='love'; the object of his admiration (Dickens); that proportion of the population which... is yet able to read words of more than one syllable, and to read them without perceptible movement of the lips 'half-literate'.
Figurative periphrasis is based either on metaphor or on metonymy, the key-word of the collocation being the word used figuratively, as in 'the punctual servant of all work' (Dickens) ='the sun'; 'in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes' (Shakespeare) ='in misfortune'; 'to tie the knot' =‘to marry’.
There is little difference between metaphor or metonymy, on the one hand, and figurative periphrasis, on the other. It is the structural aspect of the periphrasis, which always presupposes a word-combination that is the reason for the division.