Guide to Literary Terms Questions and Answers

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What is the literary term for giving an inanimate object animal characteristics—for example "the sidewalk purred"? It's not personification or anthropomorphism, because those are giving inanimate objects human characteristics.

The literary term that best describes giving animal characteristics to non-animals is "zoomorphism." Zoomorphism is usually defined as the assignment of animal characteristics to humans, but its meaning could conceivably be extended to encompass assigning animal characteristics to inanimate objects as well.

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D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The closest answer is zoomorphism, which is giving animal traits to non-animal subjects or objects, as in the sidewalk that "purrs."

There is an interesting issue bubbling under the surface of this question, though: how do we draw a line between animals and humans? Since the advent of Darwinism, humans have been understood to have evolved from animals—in short, to be animals themselves.

Nevertheless, we do make commonsense distinctions between what is usually animal and what is usually human. Thus, we are back to what might be called a problem of origins: Did the word "purr" begin life as descriptor for the sound a cat makes and then migrate over to describe certain human noises and, from there, get assigned to inanimate objects? Or did it start as a descriptor of human noises and migrate to cats? Depending on which is true, purring would become either personification or zoomorphism, and the same would be true of any other word. If we want to get technical, the best way to determine the literary category in which to place a word would be to find a good dictionary that traces word etymology and follow its wisdom.

Otherwise, common sense is a good guide. For example, to my mind, a purr is more associated with a cat than a human, so I would call a purring sidewalk an example of zoomorphism. In other cases, absent a word root, I would advise you to make an educated and context-based determination.

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Lynnette Wofford eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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This is an interesting point. There really is no specific literary term for this. Although personification is closest, it gives the sense of person rather than animal; technically, though, some critics would accept personification as an accurate term for this. However, if you refer, for example, to a car engine as purring, you are comparing the car to a contented cat, not to a person. 

The phrase "the engine purred" would be a metaphor, as it is an implicit comparison of engine to cat, not using explicit comparative words. The term zoomorphism, as discussed above, would work well for portraying humans in animal terms. 

The Egyptian gods who have some animal characteristics, are described as theriomorphic, from Greek roots meaning having the form of an animal. This is not, however, typically used as a literary...

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