A Hen in the Hand

The OED defines hendiadys with admirable adroitness dexterity: “A figure of speech in which a single complex idea is expressed by two words connected by a conjunction; e.g. by two substantives with and instead of an adjective and substantive.” In 1589, one Puttenham called it in English the “Figure of Twynnes”, but this phrase has most decidedly not caught on.

An English hendiadys given in OED is “On iron and bit he champt” to mean “he champed on the iron bit”.

And a strange Latin use of this figure, from the Tractatus Garsiae: “Si volueritis et audieritis Vrbanum, bona terrae comedetis” – “If ye will listen to Urban, ye shall eat the goods of the earth” but literally “If you are willing and listen”. Or in this couplet from Ovid, Amores 1.ii.41-42:

ipse ego segnis eram discinctaque in otia natus;
  mollierant animos lectus et umbra meos;

[I myself was slack, born in billowy leisure;
  My shady bed had softened my spirits; -d]

But literally it’s “bed and shade”. That’s hendiadys for ya! (By the way, kids, y’all remember otium?)

I’ve had a hard time remembering this useful and agreeable word, but I bet it’ll stay in my mind now. Perhaps some etymological explication of this word would prove agreeable here:

The first syllable, hen, is Greek for “one”. And the second, di means “two”. Easy to remember the figure of twins by onesies and twosies! We needn’t, of course, memorize either hen or di, since we have them in cognates. Think of “hendecasyllabic” and it should be pretty obvious what hen is. Likewise if we think about “dichotomy” there is no trouble in remembering di. Just don’t confuse this di with the thoroughgoing (but transgressive!) dia which we see in words such as “diagonal”, “dielectric” and “diachronic”.

41 Responses to “A Hen in the Hand”

  1. snjoseph Says:

    More interesting still is the dihendys! Consider the following (Andre 3000, “Behold a Lady”):

    Sophistifunk /
    Aristocats /
    Distinguished dogs, clean up your act. /
    Pull up your pants, /
    Ladies and gents, please: /
    Act like you got some sense.

    Note the dihendys in the first two lines!

    Also, use of dihendys by punk bands is considered capital form. Eg: Nirvana’s “Incesticide.”

  2. Anonymous Says:

    *cough* dia = through, dy- = two. The actual Greek phrase is hen dia dyoin.

  3. Desultor Says:

    Ooh, it makes better sense that way. This student thanks you. “One through two”, right? One essential idea conveyed through a duo of words. I wish I knew Greek and could understand the inflection of that dyoin. I thought of “di” as the root of “two” (as in “dichotomy” and “dimeter”), not “dy”.

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