Personification (or anthropomorphism) is attributing human features to non-humans.

Technically, a dead human is not a human and we give the attribute of walking to the dead. So, Is "the walking dead" a personification?

Also, can we say that "the walking dead" is an antonomasia (a kind of metonymy) for zombie?

Note: It can be a contradiction or oxymoron also in a neutral sense.

Furthermore, this phrase can be analyzed for other figures of speech, also within the scope of the comics/tv series "The Walking Dead".

There is a major spoiler so I will use the spoiler syntax for the sake of humanity:

In "The Walking Dead", the protagonists find out that they all have the virus in their body and when they die, the virus turns them into a zombie. So in this sense, "the walking dead" can be interpreted as both the living humans and zombies.

So can we say that there is a doublespeak here?

Doublespeak is language that deliberately disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words. Doublespeak may take the form of euphemisms (e.g., "downsizing" for layoffs, "servicing the target" for bombing), in which case it is primarily meant to make the truth sound more palatable.

And lastly, I think there is circumlocation and allusion.

Circumlocution refers to ambiguous or roundabout figure of speech. Ambiguity means information that can have multiple meanings. Roundabout speech refers to using many words to describe something for which a concise (and commonly known) expression exists.

Allusion is a figure of speech, in which one refers covertly or indirectly to an object or circumstance that has occurred or existed in an external context. It is left to the reader or hearer to make the connection; where the connection is detailed in depth by the author, it is preferable to call it "a reference".

In summary, what are the figures of speech in the phrase "The Walking Dead"? (regarding to the comics/tv series or not)

Do the figures of speech that I mentioned fit?

  • 2
    I'd call it a contradiction in terms if I thought the usage was pretentious, or an oxymoron (condensed paradox) if I felt it expressed some truth pithily (obviously, it's not sensible to take both terms of the expression literally). Apr 1, 2014 at 16:38
  • 3
    For the zombies, it seems to be entirely literal, in that they are dead people, and they are walking. That's not something you expect, but it's not figurative – it's more like the kind of irony in “man bites dog.” Apr 1, 2014 at 19:43
  • 3
    I'm not sure why you think that "Technically, a dead human is not a human". When a relative is called to identify a body, they don't look at the dead body and say "No, that is not my brother, my brother is a human." Apr 5, 2014 at 6:19
  • 1
    I must be missing something here: personification noun 1. the attribution of human nature or character to animals, inanimate objects, or abstract notions, especially as a rhetorical figure. ||| inanimate adjective 1. not animate; lifeless. ||| Does this not fit the dictionary definition of personification since it is applying human characteristics to an inanimate (lifeless) object--a corpse? I have a difficult time reaching for a more abstract explanation when the simplest one is available. Apr 30, 2014 at 15:27
  • 1
    Personfication is metaphorical. The dead are not metaphorically walking in that show: they're actually walking. If something is literally true, it's not personification, it's just descriptive. "Thomas Jefferson is rolling in his grave" could be considered personification because Thomas Jefferson is not, in fact, literally rolling in his grave (I hope).
    – nollidge
    May 1, 2014 at 21:18

10 Answers 10


Technically, a dead human is not a human

No, technically a dead human is indeed a human, albeit a dead one.

and we give the attribute of walking to the dead. So, Is "the walking dead" a personification?

First off, there is nothing here about being human. The words we are working with are the, walking and dead. If the apple on my desk grew legs and walked, I could reasonably refer to it as the walking dead, but not as human.

Some stuff in the spoiler that I won't quote as it's in a spoiler.

The first thing to bear in mind here, is that these beings do not exist. Now that might seem obvious, but it does have a significant point: The explanation given for "walking dead" in several different fictions about them differs. In some the explanation is purely supernatural, in some there is an infection of some sort (whether explained as a variant of some sort of real-world microbe like viruses and bacteria, or not) that affects living people, and makes them behave in that way, in some a similar sort of infection takes place upon brain death, and in some there is another explanation given, or none at all.

Because of this, we can't take the explanation of what the "walking dead" are in either Kirkman's work, or Darabont's adaptation, as self-sufficient in answering a question about how the phrase is used when talking about all such stories.

Now, as such, in some of these cases "walking dead" is quite literally what they are—they are dead, and they walk—and in others it is in fact "dead" that is being used figuratively, as they are still alive.

Now, outside of the diagesis of any particular story, we have the expressions "living dead" and "walking dead" that are applied to all such stories.

Of these, "living dead" was the earlier, and it is an apparent oxymoron, yet not a nonsensical one: the beings so-described have features both of the dead and of the living, and so the apparent oxymoron description in fact serves well. The contradiction also served another purpose, which was to induce a sense of horror (that is, a mixture of fear and revulsion) in combining a word that we are conditioned to have positive associations with and one that we are conditioned to have negative associations with.

One of the things about using an oxymoron for effect though, is that it gets tired after a while. In 1968 it that oxymoron gave it an evocative power that by the end of the 80s (when there was a glut in such films, many of them of notoriously poor quality) it had lost, and so the contradiction began to sound silly rather than horrific.

For that reason, the writers of such fictions began to search for other terms. They'd already abused zombie (which I'll talk about in more detail in a minute), but other terms were also used. "Walking dead" has the advantage of neither having the tenuous link to beliefs about zombies that were a problem with zombie (particularly among readers who were aware of the term's history, and the more well-read readers of horror would be particularly likely to know about that), and the fact that it is quite directly and simply applied; the walking dead are dead, and they walk, simple!

There is though a figurative use as well, in that "walking dead" has had earlier uses, of a live person who is doomed, due to illness, sentence of execution, threat made by the speaker ("you're dead!"), or being party to a military action unlikely to succeed. In the case of Kirkman's story, Rick Grimes, Maggie Greene, etc. are all "the walking dead" in this sense that their survival seems very unlikely.

Calling the "living" characters "the walking dead" is a form of prolepsis (not the only definition for that term as applied to rhetoric), referring to what they will inevitably be, as if they already are.

Using "The Walking Dead" as the title of a story where the term applies both literally to one part of the story (the "walkers") and figuratively to another part (the protagonists) is a case of dramatic irony.

Also, can we say that "the walking dead" is an antonomasia (a kind of metonymy) for zombie?

Certainly not antonomasia. A case of metonymy certainly, though it's the other way around. To look at this we need to look a bit more at the history of 19th & 20th century horror.

Zombie (zonbi, zombi, etc.) refers to a concept in a set of folklore and religious beliefs, particularly related to Voudoun, Yoruba, Candomblé, Lucumi, Macumba, Santeria, and similar religions. Note that I say "related to" rather than "part of", because just as there is a link but not a complete coincidence between e.g. European folklore about "dressing trees" for a blessing and the religion (generally Catholicism) of those who practice them, so too there might be beliefs found among some who believe in Voudoun that wouldn't be as common among trained Vodouisants: Here we're talking about the entire complicated mess of what different people from a bunch of different—though related—religions with different degrees of education in that religion, believe in with different degrees of sincerity (just as many European people will know and respect the fairy-lore of their country without actually believing in fairies).

As such, we can't really say any particular idea about zonbi is "the real", though a given practitioner might hold that one version is. (That one Vodouisante of my acquaintance has a love of 21st Century zombie-apocalypse stories only makes things more complicated.)

As such, zombie originally applied to a bunch of different beliefs, which are still evolving among the communities that belief or believed in them.

Now, outsiders have been using the idea of the zombie since at least the mid-19th Century ("The Unknown Painter"/"A Story of Murillo's Pupil"/"Murillo and his Slave"), with zombie films being made in the early 20th Century (White Zombie, 1932, I Walked with a Zombie, 1943) though rare later (The Serpent and the Rainbow, 1988 being an exception, but a rather tenuous one in a few ways), partly because the more recent Walking Dead genre so altered the global-north's idea of what "Zombie" means and partly because the position of the genre in the history of race relations in America and the Caribbean is complicated to say the least.

The modern "Walking Dead"/"Living Dead" film that reinvented the zombie as understood in the global north started with Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968). Now, at no point in that film is the word "zombie", "zonbi" or anything similar used.

In fact, the predecessor of the Walking Dead in such stories is not the Zombie at all, but the Vampire.

Vampire stories have themselves undergone an evolution and thanks largely to the 19th Century Dubliners Bram Stoker (Dracula, 1897) and Sheridan Le Fanu (Carmilla, 1871; much superior to Dracula in many ways IMO and sadly much less well-known), though also influenced by Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood (1845-47), the idea of the vampire as an aristocratic figure emerged with these works and then evolved further into that aristocratic stance with the remaining elements of mindless hunger becoming less and less pronounced.

Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (1954, ironically, now often thought of as a "zombie story" too) harked to the abandoned elements of the vampire story, and Romero harked to that and other elements of European folklore concerned with vampires, revenants and other European folklore about beings that had features of both the dead and the living.

Hence the "living dead"/"walking dead" is an invention of Romero's, based on earlier European and North American stories, and European folklore.

It was only some time after that, that "zombie" was used to describe these creatures, though Romero himself used the term in his later films.

As such, "zombie" is a sort of metonym for the walking dead; taking one example of a creature held to exhibit features of both the dead and the living, and the applying its name to other such creatures after the fact.

Some later horror stories have re-examined this connection and either abandoned it ("The Walking Dead" being an example in not using the term, setting a trend that would later become common in e.g. "The Infected" in 28 Days Later and "Partially Deceased Syndrome"/"Rotters" in In the Flesh), some have tried to re-combine elements of Voudoun and similar beliefs with the European-based Living Dead (e.g. the Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series) and some have abandoned the 20th Century Living Dead to examine Hiatian beliefs and outsiders reactions to it (e.g. "Bitter Grounds").

"The Walking Dead" isn't a metotym, as it applies literally to all the creatures it is used for. Indeed, it is used only for a subset of them, as it could reasonably be used of vampires, revenants, and just about any other idea of reanimated corpses (except perhaps the jiang shi as they're the hopping dead), but it isn't.

  • This answer pretty much nails it. It is great to have people like you here.
    – ermanen
    May 6, 2014 at 23:04
  • And you get a link to a great zombie short story as a bonus ;)
    – Jon Hanna
    May 7, 2014 at 0:19

"personification" in Collins English Dictionary:

  1. the attribution of human characteristics to things, abstract ideas, etc, as for literary or artistic effect
  2. the representation of an abstract quality or idea in the form of a person, creature, etc, as in art and literature
  3. a person or thing that personifies
  4. a person or thing regarded as an embodiment of a quality

I think the first thing to note is that only the first definition applies here.

We also need to agree that dead is used commonly enough as a noun that dictionaries recognise that it as one, or its usage as one (Collins, dictionary.com, Wiktionary). It should be noted here, that you can do this with any adjective ("the good, the bad, and the ugly").

In parsing the sentence (depending on your grammar of choice), you get something like:

"The         Walking     Dead"
 Determiner  Classifier  Thing
 Article     Adjective   Noun

It's clear here that adjectives attribute characteristics to nouns. The tests for personification in noun phrases or noun groups is:

  • Is the characteristic human?
  • Is the noun/thing non-human?
  • If the answer to both questions is yes, then it is personification.


  1. The shining star
  2. The shining boy
  3. The sleepy village
  4. The sleepy baby

Of those, only (3) is personification, and we can see that it passes both our tests.

In the case of the walking dead, dead expands to dead people, and so the question is are dead people still human? Taken generally, this is possibly a bit philosophical, and would be based upon criteria for humanity, which I probably can't settle here.

In the case of AMC's show, though, they're generally not treated as human, except in unusual cases (which are dramatic and emotional because they're treated as human), so I'm going to consider that as proof of how it's being used.

Secondly, is walking a purely human characteristic? I'd say not: dogs, cats and tigers all walk. If the show had been called "the sighing/laughing dead". And further, because the dead in the show/comics can walk, it's just describing what they're doing.

So as for personification, no, not when it's referring to the dead.

When it's referring to the humans in that show, it's a bit different and specific, since this doesn't necessarily apply to other cases. "Dead man walking" Collins refers to anyone who's doomed, or condemned.

In this case, the reconfiguration of that noun means it's not personification, and it's not doublespeak, because the meaning of the phrase is retained - it could still mean people who are condemned, and/or dead people who are walking.

It can be seen as allusion, because people need to know the somewhat idiomatic phrase to understand or perceive both meanings.

As for circumlocution, in the sense that it has more than one meaning and it is ambiguous as to which it is, yes. However, it's quite a concise and literal description for what's happening on the one hand, and an allusion to a reasonably well-known (at least, in the US) idiom on the other. So technically, in the sense that its meaning(s) aren't certain, yes, it's circumlocution.


I understand the term personification as a literary device when death or avarice act as persons on the stage in medieval plays. But I would not see "the living dead" as a personification. That term actually implies that something that is not a person as human vices or beauty or wealth are represented as a person. An effective stage device.

The simplest term I would use for "the living dead" is paraphrase for the somewhat mysterious term zombie. A paraphrase is basically an explanation in simpler, more understandable words for something that is foreign and not understood by everybody.

  • 1
    Thanks for the answer but "the living dead" is a general concept and the sense a bit different than "the walking dead". There are connotation in "the walking dead" regarding to the "comic series/tv show" as well.
    – ermanen
    Apr 29, 2014 at 20:51
  • Also, "the living dead" are not usually actually dead. They are usually people living such bleak lives that they act like zombies. The phrase calls to mind the shell-shocked, advanced Alzheimer's patients, or people in long-term concentration camps, who are living "a living death", something that cannot really be called a life. May 5, 2014 at 16:46

I think the “Walking Dead” is not a Personification; it is an accurate description of the zombies or zombie like creatures (ZLCs) that populate AMC popular series. A characteristic of these ZLCs is that they are quite slow. They do not run. If you are attacked by a single ZLC, you can usually stand aside and trip it. This lack of speed is something they have in common with the ZLCs that infested “The Night of the Living Dead.”

The ZLCs in “Resident Evil” and “28 Days Later” on the other hand are quite fast. I think it would be inaccurate to refer to them as ‘walking dead.’

  • In 28 Days Later, they also aren't dead; they're alive, but insane.
    – Jon Hanna
    May 6, 2014 at 14:06
  • That is why I used the term "ZLCs" May 6, 2014 at 14:13
  • Yeah (though how zombie-like they are is another question; arguably the coffee-seller girls of Bitter Grounds are more zombie-like than anything else in recent horror) but at least with 28DL it is indeed a figurative use, unlike in The Walking Dead.
    – Jon Hanna
    May 6, 2014 at 15:18
  • @JonHanna ........I agree.......in The Walking Dead the best they could do was walk. May 6, 2014 at 15:25
  • Still better than what jiang shi can do ;)
    – Jon Hanna
    May 6, 2014 at 15:28

I would say not. They are dead people, and they remain human. Even if their personhood is diminished, some remains. The phrase is more like "the idle rich" than like "the hand of death".

It is not purposely misleading or avoiding direct mention, nor is there some better understood phenomenon which helps explain it. So I would also say no on the three other counts.

It is a fairly direct reference to what is going on, right before one's eyes, as it is used in the series, and thus not a figure of speech at all.

It may be more 'figured' in older uses, where those referred to were only apparently or presumably bound to be dead.

I think in WW I, it was applied to those "soldiering on into the maw of death" in a combined sense: those worked or deprived to the point where they are no longer truly living, and those who are really so close to being killed, that we might as well already write them off.

These are not personifications, but oxymoron and hyperbole in two forms, the overstated self-referential metaphor, and the foregone conclusion.

  • I had not read, the spoiler. With it, this is just precious. They mean both the literal meaning and both figurative meanings. The zombies are the dead, walking, and the cast are the walking dead. Since this makes analysis of these two meanings relavent, I am editing them into the answer. May 1, 2014 at 2:59
  • Also, this is not doublespeak, but "double entendre". May 1, 2014 at 3:25

In my view personification is a relationship:

A personifies B iff

  1. A is a person, fictional or not, AND

  2. B is not a person

e.g., the Grim Reaper personifies death.

I don't think 'the walking dead' is a personification on account of the following reasoning. Either dead persons are still persons, or they are not (there are many reasons to go either way here -- reputations outlive people's lives, 'dead people' have certain rights (their remains must be treated with dignity) but then don't persons have to be alive?). If in the context at issue it is appropriate to think of dead people as persons, then condition 2 fails. If in the context at issue, it is NOT appropriate to think of dead people as persons (e.g., zombies(?)), then condition 1 fails. Either way "the walking dead" fails to be personification.

By the way, this wasn't the original question, but the same analysis shows why "the living dead" is not personification -- the living dead are still alive, and therefore persons. People cannot personify themselves.


Technically, a dead human is not a human and we give the attribute of walking to the dead. So, Is "the walking dead" a personification?

Since the dead actually are walking it is merely a description that distinguishes between the dead that can walk and the dead that cannot walk. There is no personification, here.

Also, can we say that "the walking dead" is an antonomasia (a kind of metonymy) for zombie?

From the dictionary:

antonomasia —

  1. using title instead of name: the use of a title or formal description such as "Your Highness" or "His Excellency" in place of somebody's proper name

  2. using proper name for general idea: the use of a proper name as a common noun to refer to somebody or something with associated characteristics, e.g. when a strong young man is called "a Hercules"

The Walking Dead would be an antonomasia if and only if "The Walking Dead" was a title used in-universe. The walking dead is, again, merely a description. An antonomasia would refer to the zombies by the name of a really famous zombie or some sort of title (like, perhaps, "The Walking Dead" but as far as I can tell, that isn't actually such a title.)

So can we say that there is a doublespeak here?

There is a well-known idiom in "dead man walking" which refers to people who are living on death row, waiting for execution. The spoiler you quote would be a viable use of this idiom and phrasing it as "the walking dead" is certainly a clever reuse of the show's title.

In summary, what are the figures of speech in the phrase "The Walking Dead"? (regarding to the comics/tv series or not)

"The Walking Dead" would not qualify as "circumlocution" or "allusion" simply because it is literal description of a bunch of dead things walking around.

It could certainly qualify as an oxymoron, however, since dead things don't typically possess the ability to walk. This is one of the reasons zombies are also referred to as "the living dead" or "the undead".


I think anthropomorphism is a zoomorphism, and not a zombie -neither animal or god.

So what is a zombie then? Is it personification? Prosopopoeia? I don't think we know because a zombie is a 'ex-human' and not an animal, god, inanimate object, nor natural phenomena -unless subject to drugs, and/or preternatural cause.


In the film "The Green Mile", the phrase "walking dead" is turned around to "dead man walking", the context being a prisoner being lead to the electric chair. I use this example to suggest this is (as you mention) an oxymoron used to great effect to emphasise irony: the prisoner is not yet dead and a dead person can not walk.

In both cases "walking" is suggestive of the present tense, coupled with something that no longer exists. A human cadaver, for instance, is an 'it', not a 'he' or a 'she', but an object; no longer a person, just the body of one that once was.

Therefore I have to conclude, this is a case of irony, personified.


It might also be important to note that in The Walking Dead (at least in the comic book), it is not the zombies who are the titular walking dead, but the survivors.

This was revealed in a speech by Rick Grimes in issue 24 of the comic series:

The second we put a bullet in the head of one of those undead monsters -- the moment one of us drove a hammer into one of their faces -- or cut a head off.We became what we are! And that's just it. THAT's what it comes down to. You people don't know what we are.

We're surrounded by the DEAD. We're among them -- and when we finally give up we become them! We're living on borrowed tim here. Every minute of our life is a minute we steal from them! You see them out there. You KNOW that when we die -- we become them. You think we hide behind walls to protect us from the walking dead?

Don't you get it? We ARE the walking dead! WE are the walking dead.

  • They're both the walking dead, one group literally and the other figuratively. The title refers to both the walkers and the protagonists.
    – Jon Hanna
    May 6, 2014 at 16:01
  • Yes that's why I mentioned the doublespeak in the question. It's nice that you share a source about it.
    – ermanen
    May 6, 2014 at 23:06

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