What is the precise technical figure of speech for a phrase that pairs a concrete noun (non-anthropomorphic*) to an abstract noun in the form of "[concrete] of [abstract]"?

The particular example I am working with is from Psalm 9:13—

gates of death

However, it is the pattern of the figure that I am curious about, where an abstract noun like death is conceived of having something concrete associated with it to convey some aspect or picture related to the abstract noun. So the meaning above is the idea of being at the entry of death, i.e. very near death. Other examples might be:

walls of despair

jacket of sorrow

ladle of love

I would appreciate some documentation linked to (or at least cited) as evidence for the proper term for such a figure of speech.**

* A phrase such as "eyes of fear" or "feet of service" fit the pattern, but the concrete noun is from a human form, and so such a figure of speech would typically be classified as an anthropomorphism.

** I am of course assuming some technical term does exist for this construction. I've found the terms reification and hypostatization associated to the idea of conceiving of an abstract noun as concrete, which seems related to the idea here. Such a move is considered a fallacy except in figures of speech, but as best I have been able to find, those two terms are not themselves reflective of the figure of speech I am seeking the term for here.

  • Have you encountered "jacket of sorrow" etc. in the wild, or did you just construct these examples for this question?
    – Travis
    Commented May 19, 2015 at 4:16
  • @Travis I found each on Google :-). How common they may be is uncertain. If you have some suggestions for better "extra" examples, I'm fine with changing them. The key example is the first one.
    – ScottS
    Commented May 19, 2015 at 9:36
  • I didn't mean to suggest they ought to be replaced, I was just curious, as they're all pretty funny ("ladle of love"). Knowing someone has actually used them makes me want to Google them now myself. :)
    – Travis
    Commented May 19, 2015 at 11:41
  • They use terms like this to name armor and weapons in gaming all of the time.
    – Catija
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 16:09

3 Answers 3


I might say these are a form of epithet.

Dictionary.com defines epithet as:

any word or phrase applied to a person or thing to describe an actual or attributed quality

  • But OP isn't looking for a word/phrase that describes a quality Commented May 19, 2015 at 6:29
  • Epithet may be correct, as I can see how the definition somewhat fits. Do you have any link that confirms this construction is such? I hesitate because one source states of epithet "The adjective or the noun used for it ... is thus placed in apposition to it," which does not appear to be the case in this construction using "X of X."
    – ScottS
    Commented May 19, 2015 at 10:45
  • Doing further research on this. No examples of "X of X" are given here, or here, or on any other site I've found so far. They are all examples of adjectives or nouns in apposition to a term.
    – ScottS
    Commented May 19, 2015 at 12:45

Each of your examples is a metaphor; death cannot literally have gates nor can despair literally have walls.

perhaps you could call it

  • "concrete/abstract metaphor" or
  • "reification metaphor" or
  • "metaphorical reification"

(Your cited source mentions that reification is a fallacy in logic, but acceptable in "figures of speech", and metaphors are certainly "figures of speech.)

  • There are three issues with this answer. (1) I'm not looking to construct a name for this (i.e. "you could call it..."). I seek accepted terminology. (2) Reification is not exactly what is occurring (as best I can tell), the nouns are remaining abstract but having a concrete association made to evoke an image. (3) The term metaphor is too broad and imprecise in technical terms. Metaphor is often used generally to refer to figurative use of language, but that is not its technical meaning in figures of speech.
    – ScottS
    Commented May 19, 2015 at 10:37

I do not believe a single term exists (1) for this construction itself, nor (2) for what is happening in this construction.

From all my investigations, there appears to be at least two, possibly more, figures of speech involved.

First, Catachresis:

figure of speech in which a word or phrase is being applied in a way that significantly departs from conventional (or traditional) usage (Wikipedia)

a figure by which one word is changed for another, and this against or contrary to the ordinary usage and meaning of it. The word that is changed is transferred from its strict and usual signification to another that is only remotely connected with it (E.W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible)

the use of word ... incorrectly, breaking the rules of usage. ... Using a word outside its normal context, where it appears wrong (changingminds.org)

This figure of speech appears to best label the use of a concrete noun in association with an abstract noun, as such departs from conventional use of the concrete noun, and is an "incorrect" use of the term.

Second, Metonymy:

a figure of speech in which a thing or concept is called not by its own name but rather by the name of something associated in meaning with that thing or concept (Wikipedia)

a figure by which one name or noun is used instead of another, to which it stands in a certain relation (E.W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible). [Specifically for example construction here, the subheading of "Metonymy of the Subject," and its subcategory "The object is put for that which pertains or relates to it."]

the use of one item's name to represent another item. In particular the representing item usually has a close association with the represented item (changingminds.org)

Since the concrete noun in the construction is departing from conventional usage (catachresis), it is the figurative term in the construction, and cannot be taken literally. Being figurative, it is representing some other idea by metonymy that the author/speaker intends the reader/listener to associate in some way with the abstract noun that makes a valid "sense" with that abstract idea.

So in the example "gates of death," gates is an unconventional term to be used with the abstract idea death (catachresis). But gates conveys by metonymy the idea of entry way (and one in which the entry way may be closed behind you such that you cannot escape, as gates are not like doors, in that they are not usually controlled by the individual entering). So "entry way of death," which itself is also a figurative way of referring to the actual point of transitioning from the state of life to that of death.


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