When a writer or speaker uses a multitude of words to express a thought-instead of coming out and stating it directly and succinctly-it is called periphrasis.Periphrasis might be used for many different reasons. Among these are that the writer or speaker wants the reader to be confused, or the person stating the thought is attempting to appear more intelligent by talking around the point and using "big words."
Instead of saying, "I lost my homework," you say, "As a matter of fact, the assignment in question is temporarily unavailable due to the secrecy of its location."
Instead of saying, "I got a C on the paper," you tell your parents, "There was room for improvement in the organization and support of my ideas, and while Mrs. Smith recognized my attempts to be brief and forthright, she would appreciate additional substance in my argument.
Examples of Periphrasis in Literature and Speech
Shakespeare indirectly refers to the idea that no one can avoid death in Sonnet 74:
When that fell arrest / Without all bail shall carry me away.
In Dickens' David Copperfield, Mr. Micawber goes to much trouble to say he will show someone the way:
Under the impression... that your peregrinations in this metropolis have not as yet been extensive, and that you might have some difficulty in penetrating the arcana of the Modern Babylon in the direction of the City Road-in short... that you might lose yourself-I shall be happy to call this evening, and install you in the knowledge of the nearest way.
In Hamlet, Ophelia is warned about losing her virginity to Hamlet-but, of course, in a roundabout way:
Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open / To his unmast'red importunity.
Literary Terms Examples