Learn English – term for adjectives / modifiers that don’t, at face value, seem to apply to the noun modified


There's a verse in Bob Seger's song Mainstreet that has this wonderful little seemingly-nonsensical word pairing:

There was this long, lovely dancer in a little club downtown;
I loved to watch her do her stuff.
Through the long, lonely nights she filled my sleep,
her body softly swaying to that smoky beat.

On face-value, the word "smoky" to describe a "beat" just doesn't make sense; smoky isn't really a quality that a [musical] beat can have. And yet, the the words do make sense together and evoke a clearer (err, smokier) image of the nightclub.

Is there a term for this literary device? Are there other examples that come to mind?

Best Answer

This is a form of metonymy using adjectives as what are called transferred epithets.

Nordquist, in Grammar.about.com gives a good overview, including the definition

A figure of speech in which an epithet (or adjective) grammatically qualifies a noun other than the person or thing it is actually describing. Also known in rhetoric as hypallage.

There needs to be some connection between the adjective and the rest of the statement.

He adds

A transferred epithet often involves shifting a modifier from the animate to the inanimate, as in the phrases "cheerful money," "sleepless night," and "suicidal sky."

'A quiet pint' (the surroundings are quiet) and 'a proud day' (some of the principals at the ceremony etc are fittingly proud) are other commonly used examples.

Gandalf's critical analysis of Bilbo's 'Good morning!'/s [Goodreads] (or Bilbo's acquiescence) is partly based on transference.

Wikipedia sees the sense in including similar noun phrases employing attributive nouns rather than adjectives as premodifiers in the class:

Hypallage ... is a figure of speech in which the syntactic relationship between two terms is interchanged, or—more frequently—a modifier is syntactically linked to an item other than the one that it modifies semantically

(but note that 'hypallage' is not restricted to the 'transferred epithet' sense);

salad days and landscape photography are examples.


A complication is that dictionary compilers rightly pick up on the non-central usages as they become idiomatic, and (rightly or wrongly) add secondary denotations (as opposed to say listing such usages under 'idioms'. For example, a possibility is

'proud' as in 'proud day': 'used to describe a time, event etc when there was/is ... reasonable grounds for pride in someone's or some group's accomplishments / when there was/is ... such pride'. It can then be argued that the defined subsense is no longer a transferred sense.