Is there a term that describes an instance where someone intentionally uses a word in a context inconsistent with the word’s literal definition?

I spent a long time trying to phrase it correctly. Here’s an example of what I’m trying to get at:

I’m reading a book in which the author writes the following: “While there is no single method that can do it all, the set of tools offer a powerful instrumentarium for better understanding and, ultimately, designing systems.”

According to Merriam-Webster, an instrumentarium is “The equipment needed for a particular surgical, medical, or dental procedure.”

The passage I quoted from the book I’m reading is not about surgery, medicine or dentistry.

Assume the author knows the literal definition of the word and used it anyway.

Is there a name for this use? The first thing that comes to my mind is the word “metaphor” but I feel like there should/could be a more specific word describing this situation, especially because it’s a fairly common practice.

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    Is the author intentially trying to mislead when they're using the word or do they expect people to correctly interpret their misuse? Oct 18, 2019 at 8:09
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    Presumably an instrumentarium would be a collection of instruments or the place where a collection of instruments are stored. Even if it is sometimes used in a surgical, medical, or dental context and not commonly used in other contexts, the general meaning would not be a stretch.
    – Henry
    Oct 18, 2019 at 8:12
  • They expect the reader to correctly interpret the meaning of the word from the context. In the case of my example, the author assumes the reader knows the book is not about dentistry or medicine, and therefore can safely use the word eloquently/metaphorically and still be effective in delivering meaning.
    – Sean Dever
    Oct 18, 2019 at 8:13
  • @Henry according to the Merriam-Webster definition I found, the definition of instrumentarium is only in reference to a collection of tools related to dentistry or medicine. I may be wrong about that and I agree that most readers would assume your definition of instrumentarium, but I’m talking specifically about an instance where the author uses a word outside of it’s literal definition.
    – Sean Dever
    Oct 18, 2019 at 8:19
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    The deliberate use of a word / expression to have a (sensible, hopefully reasonably readily deducible) meaning outside of its literal definition is, by definition, the use of [a] metaphor. A grey area exists where the precise literal meaning is open to debate and the thing being compared not too far away semantically from the thing compared with (he felt angry: is 'feel' (emotions) a figurative sense of the verb?)... Oct 18, 2019 at 11:15

2 Answers 2


There's a small set of figurative rhetorical figures (intentional or not) that capture this idea of strange, inappropriate, inconsistent, or incorrect use of terms. It is headed by the term:


There's metalepsis, hyperbole, acyron, acyrologia (malapropism and separately cacozelia are subsets of this), even puns (paranomasia). (note that overuse of these Greek terms is called Graecism).

As to the use of 'instrumentarium' in your example, I don't consider that catachresis at all. It is a very legitimate use of very direct metaphor - an instrumentarium, though literally particular to surgical tools, is easily used metaphorically for -any- set of tools.

Are all non-literal uses metaphor? Figurative is the counterpart to literal, and one could make a case that any kind of non-literal use is a transfer or comparison to another situation. But that case is very thin.

  • One, it's too broad. Two, it's mostly not done in error. So not the word we need.
    – Kris
    Oct 18, 2019 at 14:59
  • This is the closest answer to what I was looking for. Although catachresis was originally used to describe a semantic misuse or error, it can also describe
    – Sean Dever
    Oct 18, 2019 at 23:39
  • ..."a word or phrase that is applied in a way that significantly departs from conventional (or traditional) usage." There may be an argument here as to whether or not a metaphor would fit into the latter definition, and by extension, the use of 'instrumentarium' in the example.
    – Sean Dever
    Oct 18, 2019 at 23:54

As KillingTime said in his comment, it's intentional metaphorical usage.

That said, and the example aside, the word the OP is looking for must be malapropism in its broader sense, of just misuse.

Malapropism is defined as using an inappropriate word that is usually (but not necessarily) similar sounding to the one that should have been used.

  • Although the term I'm looking for is a subset of "misused words" I think this is too broad. The rub is that the word must be intentionally misused in a way that conveys useful meaning.
    – Sean Dever
    Oct 18, 2019 at 23:58

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