Epizeuxis is a literary term for the deliberate repetition of words or phrases. Also known as diacope, it refers specifically to the same word or words repeated over and over, with few or no other words between them. Ordinarily, speakers and writers are advised not to use the same words in quick succession, as this can be a sign of amateurish discourse. In epizeuxis, however, such repeated use serves to emphasize the importance of the topic. It has other uses as well, including comedy.
Epizeuxis is one of many literary devices, or schemes, that involve repetition. Each scheme has its own terminology, depending on where such repeated words appear within the sentence. Anaphora and epistrophe, for example, respectively describe phrases repeated at the beginnings or ends of sentences. Epizeuxis involves only those repeated words that appear next to each other or near each other in the sentence. The word is derived from the Greek word epizeugnumi, meaning to join or fasten together.
One of the earliest and most famous examples of epizeuxis in English literature occurs in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Hamlet, pretending to be insane, is questioned by his mother’s advisor Polonius. When Polonius asks Hamlet what he is reading, he replies simply, “Words, words, words.” Another famous example is the line “The horror, the horror,” delivered by Marlon Brando in the 1979 film Apocalypse Now.
Various other great writers have employed this technique, including Henry David Thoreau, Edgar Allan Poe and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In modern times, the technique is more frequently used in public speeches by political or media figures. In 1997, future British prime minister Tony Blair used the phrase “weak, weak, weak” to describe John Major, who held the office at the time. Legendary prime minister Winston Churchill, who led England through World War II, was noted for his inspiring use of epizeuxis in his speeches. These included his famous address after the Battle of Britain and his exhortation, “Never, never, never give in.”
Accidental misuse of epizeuxis is a common error in speech or writing. For this reason, it is often deliberately and cleverly used in comedy. In 1970, for example, the comedy troupe Firesign Theatre first described the government’s “Department of Redundancy Department." Since redundancy is another word for repetition, this served as wordplay as well as political satire. Gertrude Stein’s famous description of Oakland, California is another humorous use of epizeuxis: “There is no there there.”