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What Is a Prosopopoeia?

By Wanda Marie Thibodeaux
Updated May 23, 2024
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A prosopopoeia is a rhetorical device or figure of speech in which someone acts as or represents someone else who is absent or imaginary. The term includes but is not exclusive to personification. When a person uses prosopopoeia, she can provide a different perspective in an artistic way, thereby strengthening arguments or making speech or writing more memorable.

From the historical standpoint, prosopopoeia comes from two words in ancient Greek. Prosopon translates to face or person. Poiein means to make or to do. Thus, prosopopoeia literally means to make the face of someone else.

An example of this device is in the play of children. For example, if a little girl is playing "princess," she might say, "I am the most beautiful princess in the world! I will rule the land with my magic scepter!" The little girl is not a princess and has no land to rule, but she is acting as though she holds that title and authority. Prosopopoeia thus is a key component in make-believe and the theater.

Another way people use prosopopoeia in everyday life is to communicate what others have said or feel. Sometimes people do this in a humorous or mocking way, such as if they use a shaky, nasal-like voice to say "Eh, what, sonny? Let me turn my hearing aid on!" to imitate an old person. Similarly, a person might say, "You know, my mother always said..." and then try to imitate her mother's voice and mannerisms with whatever words follow. Saying "If so-and-so were alive...." is also an example of this figure of speech. People also use this technique to create mock debates to make a point, as Abraham Lincoln famously did in his "Cooper Union Address."

People equate prosopopoeia with personification, as well. In fact, a person may use the two terms synonymously even though prosopopoeia is not exclusive to personification. An example of personification and prosopopoeia is "The stars dance in the sky." Stars, as inanimate balls of gases, cannot dance, but by saying they do, a person can create a much different picture of what a star looks like and how it behaves. This technique is found even in major writings such as the Bible.

Even though an individual may use this rhetorical device to improve his speech, writing or authority, he must be careful not to overuse it. Too much prosopopoeia can make speech and writing appear forced and can disguise reality; a person must choose how much is appropriate given the context.

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Discussion Comments
By JackWhack — On Jul 28, 2012

@orangey03 – It makes me nervous when people use prosopopoeia to mock others when they are right in the other room! Don't they realize how much danger they are in of getting caught?

I had a classmate in elementary school who loved to pretend to be the teacher whenever she wasn't in the room. We all knew that she could walk in at any minute, but that didn't stop him. I used to get so nervous whenever he would start talking in her voice and doing her usual motions with his hands.

He did get caught one day, and she sent him to the office. I felt so sorry for him, because I had been scared for him long before he ever got caught!

By orangey03 — On Jul 27, 2012

Prosopopoeia can get you in trouble, particularly if you attempt it out loud. My coworker found this out as he was attempting to speak as our boss did.

He was famous around the office for his uncanny impression of the boss. Of course, the boss had no idea that he was being mocked.

One day, our boss had left the room during a conference to take a phone call. The guy who impersonates him picked up the phone on an open line and started to act like him, pretending to speak to a client in a certain way.

It turned out that the person who had called the boss had already hung up when he got to the office, so he turned right around and came back. He caught the guy mocking him, and our laughter and smiles quickly turned to stony silence.

By healthy4life — On Jul 26, 2012

I think that prosopopoeia is an awesome tool in poetry. More personification goes on there than just about anywhere else, and it makes the poems beautiful.

Saying that inanimate objects in nature are doing things makes them come alive, and this can be very effective. Using verbs with the moon and the ocean really creates a living mood and makes emotion run rampant.

I think the only way that it could be overused is if a person is doing it intentionally. If you fall into it while trying to express yourself, it is usually effective. However, if you set out to do it, you could easily lose the delicate balance of the poem.

By lighth0se33 — On Jul 25, 2012

I have a friend who used prosopopoeia often in his storytelling. He was seventy years old, and he loved to recount tales of his past to his grandkids.

Rather than simply tell them what happened, he would delve into the persona of the characters from his life. He would reenact what they had said in the way that they had said it.

He was a very good imitator. He had a way with words and with grabbing your attention, and he could make prosopopoeia very believable. He would have made a good actor, even though the parts he played were from reality.

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