Here, from "The all-conquering Wikipedia?" in the Times Literary Supplement, is the sentence, with context provided by the surrounding paragraph:

Equally seriously, a listicle with entries of near-uniform length (five or six pages) has, by definition, no sense of proportion. I am delighted that Lynch has found space for Wisden, Liddell and Scott’s Greek–English Lexicon, and the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, estimable works all (or at least the first two). My concern is that by granting them the same amount of space – half a chapter each – as Samuel Johnson or the Oxford English Dictionary, Lynch ends up engaging in a kind of historical reverse discrimination. In the grand scheme of themes, as the most sectarian Classicist would acknowledge, Liddell and Scott’s Lexicon is just nowhere near as interesting or important as the OED. To take an even more extreme example, is it not perhaps a shade melancholy to find Edmond Hoyle’s Short Treatise on the Game of Whist receiving more attention (six pages) than d’Alembert and Diderot’s Encyclopédie (four-and-a-half)?

I found "the scheme of things" in the dictionary, but not "the grand scheme of themes."

I understand that the former is frequently used. But I wonder how "the grand scheme of themes" is related to "the grand scheme of things"? What exactly does "the grand scheme of themes" mean?

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    I'm British, and I've never heard anyone say in the grand scheme of themes. I think it's just a unique play on the common phrase in the grand scheme of things. – Carl Smith Apr 12 '17 at 15:15
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    What @Carl said. But Google Books thinks it's got 48 written instances, and for any given instance it's really a matter of opinion whether it's wordplay or mistake. – FumbleFingers Apr 12 '17 at 15:44
  • Yes and Clover.Jin, 'themes' or not, how did you get from 'the grand scheme…' in English idiom to 'a grand scheme…' in your question, please? – Robbie Goodwin May 2 '17 at 17:23

The usual idiomatic expression that has been cleverly changed is: (in) the grand scheme of things.

Here, the author has substituted themes for things.

This is a typical literary device. It could be considered a catachresis: The inexact use of a similar word in place of the proper one to create an unlikely metaphor. (Wikipedia definition).

It is probably also some other fancy Greek word which I have forgotten or overlooked.

The grand scheme of themes would be the major issues for Classicists (scholars of Greek and Latin).


I checked the link provided by FumbleFingers in a comment above—and found not 48 but 3 verifiable Google Books matches for "grand scheme of themes"—one from 2014 and two from 2016. Let's look at how each one uses the expression.

First, Antonio Jacobs, The Yellow Flick Road: How All Movies Are Based on The Wizard of Oz (Lulu.com, 2014), has this:

Reality versus fantasy: that is what it boils down to. In the grand scheme of themes, there are two worlds: the dry, mundane flat landscape of a barren monochromatic Kansas, and the wild, diverse and exciting Technicolor world of Oz. Both worlds are fraught with danger: In Kansas, on the farm, Dorothy falls into a pigpen, needing a quick rescue. If movies like Hannibal are any indication, falling into a pigpen is sudden death.

Theoretically this self-published author might be knowingly engaging in catachresis, in accordance with Lambie's answer. Alternatively he might be making a simple mistake and not realizing it. The latter hypothesis is strengthened by instances of other idiomatic blunders and odd word choices ("Call it an obsession, but now I can watch the worse movie ever made and get some truth out of it"; "the leader, the techie or computer nerd that more than often saves the day with some sort of gizmo or hair-brained stunt"; "Lewis Carroll is credited for the invention of la femme fatale in Alice from the classic Through the Looking Glass, but it is Baum who perfects the archetype"; "The Cowardly Lion is our resident psychotic").

From Dennis Cooley, The Home Place: Essays on Robert Kroetsch's Poetry (University of Alberta Press, 2016):

Kroetsch finds beauty and plenitude and vitality in a world that others find scant. Though in the grand scheme of themes Kroetsch's realities may seem small and marginalized, they are enormously alive—vulgar, raw, profuse, obscene—and they put a charge into the poem. Dirty words in the sacred books. In story, Kroetsch has argued time and time again, we become ourselves and we do so disruptively: ...

This book lists a copy editor/proofreader, so the author may have prevailed with the catachresis argument, although I wouldn't put the odds at better than 50-50 that either person had a clear sense of the idiom "grand scheme of things" and went with "grand scheme of themes" for effect.

And from Woody Leonhard, Windows 10 All-in-One for Dummies (John Wiley & Sons2016):

Rollback: If you figure you just got hit with a bad update to Win10, it's now easy to roll back to the previous version, or build, of Win10. The most recent build, which may include bad device drivers or other tweaks that make things go bump in the night, return to their previous incarnation. That's a hiccup, in the grand scheme of themes.

Unlike the exegesis performed on Kroetsch's poetry, Leonhard's narrative isn't even remotely about themes. He simply used the wrong word in his idiom, just as he wrote in the previous sentence (once you remove the lengthy independent clause) "The most recent build return to their previous incarnation." There is nothing in the quoted paragraph that a copy editor couldn't fix in short order. But I get the impression that Leonhard didn't have any backup.

A search for "grand scheme of themes" on the wild Internet at large, yields several dozen matches, almost all of them from people who do not seem to be knowingly playing on the standard idiom for heightened effect.

Most instances of "grand scheme of themes," I suspect, are like most instances of "for all intensive purposes," "nip it in the butt," "doggy-dog world," and "deep-seeded belief": they sound enough like the normal idiom that some people think that the variant is what everyone else is saying—or should be saying. The simple term for that phenomenon, as FumbleFingers observes, is mistake.

  • I doubt any native speaker would confuse the grand scheme of things with the grand scheme of themes. That is most unlikely. The OP's snippet of text would seem to point to a well-versed writer. Not some schlub. – Lambie Apr 13 '17 at 18:50
  • And the complicated word for that is eggcorn (assuming the speaker thinks "scheme of themes" makes sense; if it's just an entirely thoughtless mistake, it would be a malapropism I guess). – herisson Apr 18 '17 at 5:59
  • @Lambie: I found the original paragraph (from the Times Literary Supplement, 26 May 2016) and have added it to the poster's question. As you anticipated, the author (Peter Thonemann, MA DPhil Oxford) displays considerable versedness, both within the quoted paragraph and in the essay as a whole. What he doesn't display, however, is any obvious justification—such as, for example, an ongoing discussion of themes of one sort or another in the surrounding text—for saying "grand scheme of themes" instead of "grand scheme of things." In that respect, it seems to me, he might as well be some schlub. – Sven Yargs Apr 18 '17 at 6:00
  • @sumelic: Right—although, if you have an MA and a DPhil from Oxford, you might prefer to call it an aguehorn. – Sven Yargs Apr 18 '17 at 15:39

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