English Literature Dictionary

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Abbey Theatre: Is the National Theatre of Ireland and is located in Dublin. It was the world's first state-subsidised theatre (since 1925) and played an important role in the development of Irish drama and dramatists in the 20th century.

abolitionist literature: Texts such as Literature, poetry, pamphlets, or propaganda which had been written with the purpose of criticising those who owned slaves and encouraged slave owners to give freedom to their slaves.  The main aim of this type of writing was to canvas support for the abolition of slavery. The writing may be in the form of autobiographical writings (in the case of many slave narratives) or fictional accounts such as Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. These texts often rely heavily on pathos for rhetorica ltechnique.

abridged: A shortened version of an original text, created by removing passages or sections of the text.

abstract: A piece of writing summarized, sometimes at the beginning of an essay. Alternatively the word can refer to language that describes unusual imagery. See abstract diction and abstract language.

abstract diction: Language that describes qualities that cannot be perceived with the five senses.

abstract imagery: Imagery that describes qualities that cannot be perceived with the five senses.

abstract language: Words that represent concepts rather than physical things.

abstract poem: A poem which contains stanzas that make little sense grammatically. The poem relies on the effect of the abstract imagery or diction.

absurd (Theatre and Literature): The notion that human existence is basically absurd and meaningless. Absurd theatre became particularly significant in the 1950s, where it combined both existentialism with farce. Noteworthy absurd dramas include Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead by Tom Stoppard.

acatalectic: A poetic term used to refer to a verse having the expected number of syllables in the final foot.

accent: Another word for stress, particularly in a line of verse, or a recognizable way of pronouncing words, often relating to class, caste, ethnic group, or geographic region.

Achebe, Chinua: The Nigerian novelist, poet and professor was born on 16 November 1930. He was raised by Christian parents in an Igbo town, and is renowned for his first novel Things Fall Apart (1958).

acronym: A word formed from the initial letters in a phrase. For instance AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

acronymy: The act of using or creating acronyms.

act: A section or a major division within a play. Frequently, individual acts are separated into smaller units called scenes.

action: 1. the unfolding of a sequence of events in a narrative or play. Or 2. the plot as a whole.

actor: A person who plays the role of a character in a performance.

adaptation: The reworking of one medium into another. For example the translation of the novel Bridget Jones’s Diary into a film.

adjective: A word that is used to modify a noun or pronoun, usually to give a descriptive meaning. For example ‘shiny’ and ‘scary’.

Admiral's Men, The: A company of Elizabethan actors directed by Henslowe, who were rivals to The Lord Chamberlain 's Men (later The King's Men). Shakespeare wrote for both parties.

adverb: Words that modify verbs, clauses, sentences and adjectives. For example, “quickly” and “fortunately”. 

aestheticism: Stemming from France, this European movement countered materialism and utilitarianism during the late 19th century. 

aesthetic distance: See distance.

aesthetics: The appreciation and analysis of beauty. See aestheticism.

affectation: A pretentious style of writing which is deemed unsuited to the form or subject matter.

African-American English: Sometimes also known as African-American Vernacular or Black English.  It is a dialect of American English, containing items of grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary particular to that language community.

Age of Reason: See enlightenment.

Age of Sensibility (or Age of Johnson): Considered to cover literature produced in England between 1745 and 1780.

Agrarians: An early 20th century movement of American writers who privileged the idea of 'back to nature' or 'back to grass roots'.

alba: A poem from the troubadour tradition in France, usually about lovers parting at dawn.

aleatory writing: Where words and punctuation have seemingly been constructed arbitrarily. There is, however, almost always some method behind such apparent randomness. In art Jackson Pollock (1912-56) is considered as having used aleatory techniques.

alexandrine: Another name for iambic hexameter.

allegory: The word originates from the Greek allegoria, which means "speaking otherwise". An allegory is something which can be read with double or two meanings: with an obvious literal meaning, as well as a figurative, 'below the surface' meaning. Frequently there is a point-by-point parallel between the two meanings. Allegories are often a way of conveying comment upon people, moral or religious ideas, historical and/or political events and/ or theories.

alliteration: The use of repeated consonants in neighbouring words. It appears most often at the beginning of those words, e.g. wonderful wilderness. It can create a strong effect by introducing pattern into the language. See assonance.

allusion: A casual reference to any aspect of another piece of literature, art, music, person or life in general.  Authors suppose that the reader will identify the original source and relate the meaning to the new context. An example of allusion is TS. Eliot's The Waste Land. See intertextuality.

alternate rhyme: See rhyming couplets.

alternate rhyming couplets The rhyming of alternate lines, also identified as ‘abab’ rhyme scheme. See rhyme, rhyming couplets.

alternative literature: Literatures that, during their time, seem to be outside the conventional. Such writing, if it has value, often becomes a part of the mainstream. An example of this is elements from the Beat movement. See subversion.

ambience: Broadly an alternative word for atmosphere. See mood, tone.Specifically the word ambiance relates to the atmosphere or mood of a specific setting or location

ambiguity: When words, sentences and texts have more than one meaning. This can be deliberate or unintentional. The idea of ambiguity has been considered by Empson in his SEVEN TYPES OF AMBIGUITY. Generally, ambiguity is a negative expression applied to a vague or equivocal expression when accuracy would be more practical. Occasionally, however, deliberate ambiguity in literature can be a commanding method. See pun.

ambivalence: When the reader has mixed feelings or opposing views towards an event, character or object.

American dream: An idea in American literature, film, and art that articulates positive imaginings for self-improvement, freedom, and self-sufficiency available in America. It has been suggested that the term can have no fixed meaning because the ideas desired are individual to each person according to that time. Generally, it has implications of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". Examples of these would be Miller's De ath of A Salesman and Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

American English: The English language as it has developed in North America. Differences from British English occur in terms of diction, spelling and grammatical use and accent.

Americanism: A phrase or word which is considered to typify English as used in the USA.

American renaissance: The period which covers American literature written between 1828-65.

amphibrach: A poetic term referring to a foot with three syllables - short, long, short.

amphimacer: Apoetic term referring to a foot with three syllables - long, short, long.

amphitheatre: A performance arena consisting of a stage and seats rising in tiers, usually in a circular shape.

amplification: A rhetorical device where language is used to emphasise or extend. For example Charles Dickens used the technique in his opening passages to BLEAK HOUSE, creating an atmosphere of fog, literal and metaphorical. See repetition.

anachorism: An action, event, character or scene which is out of time sequence.  Sometimes this device is a deliberate part of the structure. See flashback, in media res, prolepsis.

anachronism: Something which is too early or too late for the given time, ie  Placing an event, person, item, or verbal expression in the wrong historical period. It may be a mistake, but more frequently it is an intentional device in literature or dramatic productions to stress the timelessness of the universe. For example the setting of HENRY V within the context of the Falklands War, by the English Shakespeare Company in 1987, gives a sense of the play having a contemporary meaning.

anacrusis: An unstressed syllable, before the regular rhythm begins, at the beginning of a line of verse.

anadiplosis: From the Greek for 'doubling'. Repetition used in rhetoric where a phrase or word from the proceeding sentence is used at the beginning of the next.

anagnorisis: Translates to' recognition'. It is the instant when one or more characters, often the protagonist, recognises the truth. See Aristotle

anagram: When the letters or syllables in a name, word or phrase are jumbled to form a new word.

analepsis:  Another term for flashback. See in media res, prolepsis.

analogues: Narratives which have equivalents in other cultures, languages and/or literatures.

analyse: Often used in exam or essay questions, the term means to closely examine various parts of something or a whole text.

analysis: The process of examining something meticulously. This often involves the separation of elements (structure, form, literary devices) into different parts, to facilitate understanding of a whole text.

anapaest: A metrical foot composed of two short syllables followed by one long one, as in the word seventeen.

anapaestic: see meter, anapaest .

anaphora: A rhetorical device where a word, or group of words, is repeated in consecutive clauses. See repetition.

anastrophe: See syntax.

ancillary characters: From the Latin ancilla, which means "helper" or "maid", the phrase refers to less significant characters who are not the primary protagonist or antagonist. They nevertheless interact with the more important characters in such a way as to offer insight into the narrative action.

androcentric: Literally meaning 'man-centred'. Androcentric literature is primarily concerned with man. This is an alternative term for phallocentric.

anecdote: A short narrative relating to a single incident told for amusement, gossip, or moral guidance.

Anglo-Saxon period: see Old English Period.

Angry young men: A term referring to a group of English writers, musicians and artists in the 1950s. Included in this group are Kingsley Amis, Braine, Sillitoe and, notably, Osborne. Osbourne’s play Look Back in Anger portrays the anti-hero Jimmy Porter, who is the prototypical Angry Young Man. This group resented the upper-class and the establishment. Their works articulate contempt for the pretense of society in post-war Britain where, despite promises, working or middle-class educated people were unable to break into powerful areas. Their writing was often powerful, bitter and angry, often humorous, and much of it received critical acclaim.

anisometric: A stanza containing lines of unequal length

antagonist: The character in a drama or novel, who is the main opponent of the protagonist.

antanaclasis: A figurative device where a word is repeated in two or more of its senses, e.g. when in Shakespeare's play Othello says: Put out the light, and then put out the light (Act V, Scene 2) The first ' light' refers to the candle, the second is a metaphor for Desdemona's life.

anthology: A selection of work by different writers. Sometimes the volume will be of a particular genre, e.g. post-colonial literature, or dedicated to a particular period, e.g. metaphysical poetry. See also collection.

anthropomorphism: When non-humans are given human abilities to think and speak.

anti-climax: Any incident of let-down when an anticipated climax is not realized.

anti-hero: A protagonist who exhibits unheroic characteristics.

anti-novel: An experimental type of fiction, which intentionally challenges the conventions of the traditional novel. Some possible aspects include alternative beginnings and endings.

anti-Semitic literature: Literature that disparages Jewish people or encourages racist attitudes toward them. A great deal of the religious literature produced in medieval and Renaissance Europe engaged in anti-Semitism.

antiphonal: A poem or hymn which is divided into two parts. Each part responds to or echoes the other

antithesis: An argument set up in opposition to a thesis. See oxymoron, paradox

aphorism: a short, condensed, sometimes witty saying, close in meaning to maxim or proverb

aporia: A key term in deconstruction theory.  Aporia defines the point where contradictory meanings in a text cause 'deconstruction' or the breakdown of a/the idea(s)

aposiopesis: Deliberate break in a speech leaving it incomplete. This can have a powerful and intimidating effect

apostrophe: A figure of speech where an object or abstract entity is addressed

appreciation: This examination term suggests that more than just a line by line mechanical analysis of a piece of text is required, and that the candidate must show a more in-depth understanding of the effects of various techniques.

archaism: Old or outdated words or syntax which are intentionally used for effect.

argument:  A line of reasoning, or a summary of a plot.

Aristotle: A Greek philosopher who lived from 384 BC to 322 BC. Aristotle wrote on numerous subjects including poetry, physics, music, politics and biology. He was the student of Plato. Alongside Plato and Socrates, Aristotle is considered an important figure to the founding of Western knowledge.

Arthurian legend: Semi-historical narratives of a King named Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

aside: A theatrical convention, often leading to dramatic irony, whereby a character in a play speaks so that the audience may hear (sometimes directly addressing the audience) but, it is supposed, the other characters on stage do not hear. See soliloquy.

assonance: The rhyming or repetition of vowels within words. It is used to create a melodious effect, often in poetry), e.g. 'wide' and 'time'. The device only occasionally results in the rhyming of words.

atmosphere: The emotion or mood induced by a part or whole of a work of art. See ambience, mood, tone.

Atwood, Margaret: Canadian novelist and poet. She has been nominated for the Booker prize five times, winning it once.

audience: The person(s) watching a play or performance.

auditory imagery: Descriptive language that refers to noise, music, or other sounds. See imagery.

Augustan Period (or The Age of Pope): This period is considered to include literature written in England between about 1700 and 1745. This period saw the rapid development of the novel as a popular form of literature. Satire was often utilised.

Austen, Jane: Born on 16 December 1775, Austen died on 18 July 1817. She was a renowned English novelist, who sharply commented on contemporary society. Her works include Mansfield Park and Emma.

author: The composer or writer of any literary work, be it a novel, essay or poem. It is more appropriate, however, to identify a poem’s author as a poet.

author’s craft: Similar to writer’s craft, this term refers to the style and devices used by an author. See poetic techniques and literary devices

authorial attitude: see authorial intention.

authorial intention: The phrase indicates what the author meant when s/ he wrote a text. Many modern critics suppose that what the author may or may not have intended is immaterial, that there is no fixed meaning in a text, and that an individual reader's interpretation is all-important.

autobiographical memoir: a book concerned with events in the author's life, but not a comprehensive autobiography.

autobiographical novel: In contrast with the autobiography , an autobiographical novel is a semi-fictional account established in part on the author's life experience, but these experiences are often transposed onto a fictional character or intermixed with fictional events.

autobiography: a narrative of a person 's life written by her or himself.

auto-da-fé: From the Portuguese, meaning "act of faith", the term refers to the late medieval church's ceremonial execution en masse of accused witches, Jews, heretics, or Muslims. The execution was frequently achieved by burning at the stake.

avant-garde: This phrase is used to describe modern work that is at the cutting edge or 'ahead of its time'. Avant-garde literature deliberately sets out to be innovative, and even to shock. Writers often experiment with form and technique in this type of writing.

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The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean.
Robert Louis Stevenson

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