P is for Plurisignation



Plurisignation: a profusion or amplitude of meanings.

Actually, I only found the word this morning, while I was still waking up. Roget was still sleeping, so I picked up my copy of A Poet’s Glossary, by Edward Hirsch, and wandered through the P pages.

Plurisignation was a word proposed by William Wheelright in his book, The Burning Fountain (1954), as an alternative to the word ambiguity. Specifically, William Empson’s use of the word in his (Empson) classic book on literary criticism, Seven Types of Ambiguity.

Wheelright wrote:

“Empson’s use of the term ‘ambiguity’ generally refers to the plurisignative character of poetry language; his word is inappropriate, however, since ambiguity implies an ‘either-or’ relations, plurisignation a ‘both-and.’”

Poetry Smack Down!!!!

Not sure what Wheelwright meant by inappropriate. Here are Empson’s seven types of ambiguity, summed up via Wikipedia:

  1. The first type of ambiguity is the metaphor, that is, when two things are said to be alike which have different properties. This concept is similar to that of metaphysical conceit.
  2. Two or more meanings are resolved into one. Empson characterizes this as using two different metaphors at once.
  3. Two ideas that are connected through context can be given in one word simultaneously.
  4. Two or more meanings that do not agree but combine to make clear a complicated state of mind in the author.
  5. When the author discovers his idea in the act of writing. Empson describes a simile that lies halfway between two statements made by the author.
  6. When a statement says nothing and the readers are forced to invent a statement of their own, most likely in conflict with that of the author.
  7. Two words that within context are opposites that expose a fundamental division in the author’s mind.

If you had to pick one (obviously all taken out of context but this is just P day on my little blog), which of the seven would you say best amplified Wheelwright’s poke at Empson?

I’m participating in the A-Z Blogging Challenge. I’ll try to come up with something appropriately Quirky for tomorrow.



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