I. What is Zeugma?
Zeugma is when you use a word in a sentence once, while conveying two different meanings at the same time. Sometimes, the word is literal in one part of the sentence, but figurative in another; other times, it’s just two completely separate meanings for the word.
II. Examples of Zeugma
The farmers in the valley grew potatoes, peanuts, and bored.
This is an example of zeugma being used for humor. Like many jokes, it comes in three parts: the first two establish a pattern, and the third changes it. It’s an example of zeugma because the word “grew” is being used in two different senses: literally, the farmers grew potatoes and peanuts, but figuratively they also grew bored.
They left the room with tear-filled eyes and hearts.
Obviously, hearts don’t fill up with tears, except in a very figurative sense. (If their hearts were literally filling with tears, they would need to go straight to the hospital!) So this too is an example of zeugma where tear-filled is being used both literally and figuratively at the same time.
He lost his briefcase, then his job, then his mind.
The word “lost” is used in multiple senses, with each image slightly more unfortunate than the last. Through zeugma, this 10-word sentence tells a story which revolves around the single verb “lost.” We can follow the progression of events through the story quite easily, thanks to the flexibility of the word.
III. The Importance of Zeugma
The basic function of zeugma is surprise. Take the first example in §2: the potatoes and peanuts lead us to expect that the third word will be another crop. But the word “bored” violates this expectation and surprises the reader. Our brains try to fit the new word into the old pattern, and it results in the humorous image of boredom growing out of the earth like a crop!
Even when the surprise doesn’t result in humor, it still makes the phrase stand out. In the second example, above, the image of “tear-filled hearts” is an unusual figure of speech produced by the zeugma.
IV. Examples of Zeugma in Literature
He carried a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men. (Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried”)
In Tim O’Brien’s collection of stories, the word “carry” is often used in multiple senses – in addition to the items in their backpacks, the soldiers in these stories also figuratively “carry” abstract items such as fear, responsibility, and duty. The zeugma in this sentence is a tiny example of a concept that runs through the whole book.
Miss Bolo…went home in a flood of tears and a sedan chair. (Charles Dickens, “Pickwick Papers”)
V. Examples of Zeugma in Popular Culture
You are free to execute your laws, and your citizens, as you see fit. (Riker, “Star Trek: The Next Generation”)
In the first sense, the linking word means “put into effect,” as one does with laws; in the second sense, it means “kill.”
You held your breath and the door for me. (Alanis Morissette, “Head Over Feet”)
Both senses of “held” are literal, but they mean slightly different things.
VI. Related Terms
Zeugma involves using a word with two different senses simultaneously. That means it’s also a double entendre, which just means “double meaning.” Double entendre is using a word to mean two things at once, but it doesn’t necessarily have the same grammatical function as zeugma. A zeugma is “split” by having multiple objects to attach to, whereas double entendre may not be split in this way.
Double Entendre: We’re having the Johnsons for dinner.
This could mean we’re having the Johnsons over for dinner, or it could mean we’re eating them for dinner! Notice the lack of any grammatical split in the sentence.
Zeugma: We’re having the Johnsons, and a nice risotto, for dinner.
The same double entendre, but now with a grammatical split in the sentence, making the whole thing a zeugma.