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Borrowed from Late Latin adynaton (impossibility; adynaton), or directly from its etymon Ancient Greek ἀδύνατον (adúnaton, an impossibility; impracticality), substantivized neuter singular of ἀδύνατος (adúnatos, unable; that cannot be done, impossible) + -ον (-on, suffix forming nouns). The word ἀδύνατος is derived from ἀ- (a-, the alpha privative, a prefix forming words having a sense opposite to the word or stem to which it is attached) + δῠνᾰτός (dunatós, mighty, strong; possible, practical) (from δῠ́νᾰμαι (dúnamai, to be able, capable; it can be, it is possible) (from Proto-Indo-European *dewh₂- (to fit)) + -τος (-tos, suffix forming verbal adjectives of possibility)).[1]



adynaton (plural adynata or adynatons)

Examples (form of hyperbole)

• One can expect an agreement between philosophers sooner than between clocks. — Seneca the Younger (c. 4 b.c.e. – 65 c.e.), Apocolocyntosis.
• I will sooner have a beard grow in the palm of my hand than he shall get one on his cheek. — William Shakespeare, Othello (c. 1603–1604), Act II, scene i, lines 196–197.
• That proposal has a snowball’s chance in hell of being accepted.

  1. (rhetoric) A form of hyperbole that uses exaggeration so magnified as to express impossibility; an instance of such hyperbole.
    • [1820 October, “Art. 26. The Flowers of Rhetoric, the Graces of Eloquence, and the Charms of Oratory; Depicted by Men Celebrated for Their Taste, Genius, Diction, and Erudition. Assorted and Exhibited by the Rev. Ralph Sharp, D.D. Crown 8vo. 9s. Boards. Fearman. 1819. [book review]”, in The Monthly Review; or, Literary Journal, Enlarged, volume XCIII, London: Printed by A[ndrew] and R. Spottiswoode, []; and sold by J. Porter, successor to the late T[homas] Becket, [], OCLC 901376714, page 221:
      In this little book, Dr. Sharp attempts to revive and to explain a great number of hard words which were formerly employed by teachers of rhetoric: presenting chapters intituled after the figures, Acyrologia, Adynaton, Anadiplosis, [...]]
    • 1953, Ernst Robert Curtius; Willard R[opes] Trask, transl., “Topics”, in European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages: Translated from the German (Bollingen Series; XXXVI), Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, published 1990 (7th printing), →ISBN, page 97:
      In the realm of a very exclusive art adynata of this type and others are taken up again by Arnaut Daniel, the great and distant master of Dante [Alighieri].
    • 1971, David William Foster, The Marqués de Santillana (Twayne’s World Authors Series; 154), New York, N.Y.: Twayne Publishers, OCLC 1075471765:
      Stanza 12 is notable for its use of the topos of the exhausted poet whose skills and techniques are fading fast and which cannot do justice to either his beloved or his love for her. This is ironic after the elaborate adynatons.
    • 1978, Leroy C. Breunig, “From Rem to Rien and Back”, in Jeanine Parisier Plottel and Hanna [Kurz] Charney, editors, Intertexuality: New Perspectives in Criticism. (New York Literary Forum; 2), New York, N.Y.: New York Literary Forum, →ISBN, ISSN 0149-1040, page 214:
      As a final sample of this little genre, which we may call the one-line paraphrase of rien, there is this rather brutal adynaton of the surrealist Jean-Pierre Duprey: "Vide ton creux," which Graham Dunstan Martin translates as "pour out your vacuum."
    • 1998, Damian U[gwutikiri] Opata, Essays on Igbo World View, Nsukka, Nigeria: AP Express Publishers, →ISBN, page 34:
      This transcendence is very evident in adynatons which pervade Igbo folklore.
    • 2007, Huw Griffiths, “Letter-writing Lucrece: Shakespeare in the 1590s”, in Jennifer Richards and Alison Thorne, editors, Rhetoric, Women and Politics in Early Modern England, Abingdon, Oxfordshire; New York, N.Y.: Routledge, →ISBN, page 93:
      [William] Shakespeare's use of adynaton is central to an understanding of [The Rape of] Lucrece. On the one hand, this text explores a need for communication that functions on the basis that language is adequate to move private griefs into public action; on the other hand, it comments ironically on the impossibility of that ever being achieved. [...] Adynaton, then, is not only particularly attuned to what can, or rather cannot, be said in any given context, but can also offer the careful reader a critique of the very language being used and expose the limitations of that language.


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