WARNING: In the following post Jenny exposes the nerd she is, plus The Beatles.
Throughout Wodehouse you will find descriptions like this: “I waved a sombre fork.” ~P.G.W. The Luck of the Bodkins
According to Robert A. Hall Jr. in his 1973 essay “The Transferred Epithet in P.G. Wodehouse” this type of construction is called a (and the title of his essay gives it away) transferred epithet. “In traditional rehetorical analysis, this type of expression is termed the ‘transferred epithet’. In the instances cited, we might interpret the adjective, in the construction Adjective + Noun as equivalent to an adverb transferred from it’s position modifying the verb of the clause.”~Hall “The Transferred Epithet in P.G. Wodehouse”
Meaning: The adjective (sombre) really describes the verb (waved) and not the object (fork)–meaning that sombre is really an adverb. So the true meaning of the sentence is something along the lines of “I sombrely waved the fork.”
The effect of the transferred epithet is humorous. It’s just not as funny to read “I sombrely waved the fork.” Waving a sombre fork gives the inanimate object a shade of emotion and exaggerates the character’s emotion. Which is funny.
Yes, something called “transferred epithet” is used for purposes of funny.
When I look at the term “sombre fork” I harken back to my elementary school days where I was introduced to the literary term “personification.” It’s easier for me to understand this broad concept rather than the very specific syntactic concept of “transferred epithet.” Seems to me that Wodehouse’s sentence construction is a specific instance that falls under the broader umbrella of personification.
Personification is just like it sounds: you give person characteristics to things that aren’t persons. “The angry ocean crashed upon the unsuspecting shore.” Now, an ocean can’t be angry and a shore can’t be unsuspecting. A fork cannot be sombre. Therefore: personified!
Wodehouse’s examples are all humorous. But personification pops up everywhere and can be used to great literary, moving, and musical effect.
Which brings me to The Beatles (since we’re always talking about mentors, seems silly not to bring them up somewhere). More specifically, George Harrison. Some of you may have watched the recent American Idol where contestant James Durbin covered “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Here is an Example Of The Wonderousness Use Of Personification To Move People.
So, when you’re going through your manuscripts and looking for all kinds of metaphorical/humorous/moving ways to improve your words don’t forget about transferred epithets and listen to George Harrison, the man his-own-self, personify guitars (because guitars don’t really weep–but you should!):
**In the interest of academic citation:
Hall, Robert A. Jr. “The Transferred Epithet in P. G. Wodehouse.” Linguistic Inquiry. Vol 4. No. 1. (Winter 1973). pp. 92-94.
Jenny writes dark fiction that her mother hates. Her stories and essays have appeared in Across the Margin, Pantheon, Shimmer, Black Denim Lit, Skive, and others. When she’s not writing her own stuff, she’s reading mysteries for Criminal Element. When she’s not writing fiction or reviews, she’s writing/directing/performing/designing plays at Springs Ensemble Theatre.