Watching and listening to Barack Obama as he prepares to take office, I am struck by his skillfully crafted speeches, and I wonder. Is there a literary term for the repetition of words he uses in his orations? The answer is yes, but as usual with the English language, it’s a bit complicated. Depending upon where or how the words are repeated determines the literary tag.
Repeating words or phrases at the beginning of a sentence is called an anaphora. Two of the most famous examples are:
“I have a dream that one day this nation … equal … I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia … table of brotherhood … I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi … freedom and justice … I have a dream that my four little children … I have a dream today …”(Martin Luther King, Jr.)
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times …” (Charles Dickens)
If the repeated words or phrases appear at the end of the sentence, the literary term is called an epiphora:
“This nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth…” (Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address)
A ploce (plo-chay) repeats the words or phrase with a twist – or more defined description:
When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
I am stuck on Band-Aid, and Band-Aid’s stuck on me.
“There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” (Bill Clinton)
“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” (John F. Kennedy, January 20, 1961)
“Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” (Barack Obama, 2004 Democratic National Convention Keynote Address)
But wait! There’s still another version. When words or phrases are repeated exactly, sometimes separated by punctuation or a few words, it is called a diacope (die-ack- oh-pee):
“There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.” (Judy Garland, The Wizard of Oz)
“I think I can; I think I can; I think I can.” (The Little Engine That Could)
In the sixties, didn’t we call that a mantra?