Two examples I can think of:

The athlete's Achilles heel was her Achilles heel.

The chef's bread and butter is his bread and butter.

In both cases, the order of the idiom and the thing it refers to is ambiguous. Is the first occurrence of 'Achilles heel' supposed to be figurative or literal? Same with the first occurrence of 'bread and butter.'

Does this construction have a name?

  • I've never heard a name. It's sort of an opposite of an oxymoron.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 27, 2015 at 20:25
  • self-referential idiom?
    – ermanen
    Mar 28, 2015 at 21:34

4 Answers 4


It seems unlikely that there is such a word. Many idioms stem from an actual, non-idiomatic usage so it doesn't seem surprising that there are idioms that can still function in a non-idiomatic form.

  • He let the cat out of the bag by letting the cat out of the bag.
  • If you scratch my back by scratching my back, I'll scratch your back by scratching your back.
  • The airplane ran out of runway by running out of runway

Such an idiom is one that can function as both "literal" and "figurative":

literal — taking words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory

figurative — departing from a literal use of words; metaphorical

The act would be a literal action that also satisfies the figurative meaning of the idiom. Placing them both in the same sentence is just wordplay -- I wouldn't even count it as a self-referential usage. It is more akin to a tautology:

tautology — the saying of the same thing twice in different words, generally considered to be a fault of style (e.g., they arrived one after the other in succession)

With the exception that you say the same thing twice, with the same words but switching between literal and figurative use. Does a word describe such double-usage? I don't know of one, no.


The athlete's Achilles heel was her Achilles heel.

is wrong. Her heel cannot be Achilles' heel (Achilles was a Greek hero). The correct sentence would be:

The athlete's Achilles heel was her heel.

Similarly, any chef's bread and butter is not his bread and butter (his ability to earn necessary provisions) but his ABILITY to prepare/bake bread and butter is his bread and butter.

There could be several other examples of such a recursive use of idioms. I don't know if there is a name for it, though.

  • 3
    You misunderstand. If her Achilles' tendon is acting up and preventing her from performing her feats of athleticism then that (which is sometimes called "Achilles' heel" syndrome) is her figurative Achilles' heel.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 27, 2015 at 19:37
  • The OP is discussing statements which use the same word/phrase in both literal and figurative form.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 27, 2015 at 19:41
  • I would disagree that an athlete's Achilles heel is their Achilles heel. The original reference to Achilles' heel was that he was invincible everywhere but that part of his body, by which he was held when being dipped in the river Styx. It wasn't one of the weak points, it was the only weak point. More importantly, not an obvious weak point. The real Achilles heel is not only an obvious weak point of an athlete, but also not the only one (pick any tendon!). Jan 27, 2015 at 20:51
  • 1
    The common idiomatic meaning of Achilles heel is not constrained to be the only weakness, but instead to be some particular weakness that is so damaging that it is solely responsible for a loss or defeat, e.g. the absence of that particular weakness would have meant no defeat even if there are other weaknesses. While the athlete may have other potential weaknesses, it is the Achilles heel (whatever type of injury it may be) that is the indisputably-at-fault-for-the-defeat-and-without-which-the-athlete-indisputably-would-not-have-been-defeated one.
    – user65787
    Jan 27, 2015 at 21:10
  • 1
    @HotLicks The Achilles tendon is never referred to as the Achilles heel. Achilles heel exclusively means a weakness... so the example in the OP is pretty poor. Jan 27, 2015 at 22:38

I think you might be onto a deepity here, which is something that sounds profound but intellectually hollow.

The word is attributed to Daniel Dennett, though I (vaguely) recall in one of his debates he himself attributed it to his daughter or granddaugher.

A deepity has typically two interpretations. One that is true but trivial and one that is false, but amazing if it were true.

By this definition, both of the OPs statements fit into the category of a deepity.

  • It doesn't sound like a deepity is constrained to be of the form "... <some idiom> ... <same idiom again>", where one instance is literal and the other figurative -- which is what I'm asking. The Achilles heel example I have already given is both true and relatively boring, since Achilles heel injuries are common for many types of athletes and could easily and frequently serve as the debilitating flaw that an otherwise unbeatable athlete succumbs to.
    – user65787
    Jan 27, 2015 at 21:06

This might be a cross between a “wellerism” and a "Type 4 zeugma or syllepsis" . Although neither seems to work alone for your case, both of these terms seem to relate to word-play involving the simultaneous use of the literal and figurative meanings of words and phrases. Maybe a “redundant or loaded wellerism” would work.

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