Adynaton (plural adynata) is a figure of speech in the form of hyperbole taken to such extreme lengths insinuating a complete impossibility:[1]

  • I will sooner have a beard grow in the palm of my hand than he shall get one of his cheek.[2]

The word derives from the Greek ἀδύνατον (adunaton), neuter of ἀδύνατος (adunatos), "unable, impossible" (a-, "without" + dynasthai, "to be powerful").[3]

Classical and Medieval usage

Adynaton was a widespread literary and rhetorical device during the Classical Period and was known in Latin as impossibilia. A frequent usage was to refer to one highly unlikely event occurring sooner than another:

One can expect an agreement between philosophers sooner than between clocks. Seneca, "The Pumpkinification of Claudius".

However it largely fell into disuse during the Middle Ages before undergoing a minor revival in the works of romantic poets, who would boast of the power of their love, and how it could never end.

Together, we shall sooner see, I, & you, The Rhône tarry, & reverse its course, The Saône roil, & return to source, Than this my fire ever die down Maurice Scève

Fiction, folklore and drama

Adynata are sometimes used within works of fiction or drama:

Part heat from fire, then, by that notion,
Part frost from snow, wet from the ocean!
Ask less!      Henrik Ibsen, Brand

Impossible tasks appear often in legends and folklore, such as the tale of "The Spinning-Woman by the Spring", and can form elements of ballads, riddles and proverbs.

Modern usage

Some modern adynata include:

  • In English, "When pigs fly!",[4] and "Not before Hell freezes over!"[5] and its derivative "A snowball's chance in hell".[6]
  • In German the expression "Wenn Schweine fliegen könnten" is identical with the English version: "When pigs can fly". - Also the German expression: "Wenn Ostern und Weihnachten zusammenfallen" means "When Christmas and Easter coincide"[7]
  • In Italian, the expression "Quando gli asini voleranno" ("when donkeys fly").[8]
  • In French, the expression "quand les poules auront des dents" ("when hens grow teeth").[9]
  • In Spanish, the expression "cuando las vacas vuelen" ("when cows fly"),[10] or "cuando las ranas crien pelo" ("when a frog grows hairs") [11]
  • In Latvian, expressions include "Kad pūcei aste ziedēs"[12]
  • in Dutch, the expression "Als Pasen en Pinksteren op één dag vallen" ("when Easter and Pentecost are the same day")[13]
  • In Malay, the expression "Tunggu kucing bertanduk" ("when cats grow horns").[14]
  • In Bulgarian, the expressions "когато цъфнат налъмите" (kogato tsâfnat nalâmite) -- "when the clogs blossom",[15] and "когато

върбата роди круши" (kogato vârbata rodi krushi) -- "when pears grow on a willow tree").[16]

  • In Russian, the expression "когда рак на горе свистнет" (kogdá rak na goré svístnet) - "when the crawfish whistles on the mountain".[17]
  • In Serbian or Croatian, the expression "kad na vrbi rodi grožđe" ("when grapes grow on a willow").[18]
  • In Turkish, the expression "balık kavağa çıkınca" ("when fish climb poplar trees").[19]
  • In Portuguese, the expression "quando as galinhas tiverem dentes" ("when chickens grow teeth").[20]
  • in Swedish, the expression "två torsdagar i veckan" ("two Thursdays in the same week"). It is also said as "two Sundays in the same week", but other weekdays are rarely used.[21]
  • in Hungarian, the expression "majd ha piros hó esik" ("when it's snowing red")[22]
  • in Romanian, the expression "La Pastele Cailor" ("on horses' Easter")[23]
  • in Finnish, the expression "kun lehmät lentävät" ("when cows fly") or "kun lipputanko kukkii" ("when flagpole blossoms") [24]

See also


References and further reading

  • Dictionary of poetic terms Myers, J., Wukasch, D.
  • Some Notes on the Adynaton in Medieval Literature
  • Ronald Grambo, Adynaton Symbols in Proverbs. A Few Fragmentary Remarks (s. 40-42). Proverbium 15. Helsinki 1970.
  • Martti Haavio, Omöjlighetssymboler i finsk epik (s. 73-83). Sed och Sägen 1956.
  • Henrik Ibsens Skrifter Brand. Peer Gynt. Universitetet i Oslo. H. Aschehoug & Co. (William Nygaard). Oslo 2007. ISBN 82-03-19002-2.
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