Successive use or frequent recurrence of the same initial letter or sound at the beginning of two or more words; specifically, the regular recurrence of an initial letter or sound in the accented parts of words in poetry; initial rime. Figures kindred to Alliteration are the following:


I. Rime, a correspondence of sounds in two or more words, especially in poetry; specifically, the occurrence of the same vowel, and succeeding consonant sounds (if there be any), in accented syllables at the end of two lines, or more rarely at the beginning of two or more words. Under the head of rime may be mentioned assonance—correspondence of the vowels, but not of the consonants, in riming syllables, such as "nice" and "night," "feel" and "need"—used in the Romance languages. In a wider sense assonance signifies correspondence of sound in general.

II. Play upon Words (pun, paronomasia, quibble), a combination of words of similar sound producing a witticism or jest. Pun is more specifically the witty use of a word in two senses, usually antithetic and more or less incongruous, in which the play of thought turns chiefly on the sense; or less strictly, a play on words of the same sound but of different meanings. But the most frequent and comprehensive term for these figures in ancient rhetoric is paronomasia, which, however, in the modern application of the term, signifies any use for effect of words similar in sound, but differing in meaning; a play on words in which the similarity of sound is the prominent characteristic. In Hebrew there is found in ḳimḥi's commentary on Micah, i. 10 the expression , "vox coincidens (sono) cum alia, elegantiœ causa."

Alliteration in the Old Testament.

Alliteration being the simplest and probably the oldest of the figures produced by similarity of sound, is also the most frequent of these figures in the Old Testament. Here its proper sphere is in syntactically coordinated words, as a rule synonyms, or related to one another in meaning, where, in not a few cases, it forms set phrases. The force of Alliteration in these combinations is, as in other literatures, that of emphasis and impressiveness: "dust and ashes," Gen. xviii. 27; Job, xxx. 19; xlii. 6; "misery and wretchedness," or "sin and iniquity," Num. xxiii. 21; Isa. lix. 4, etc.; "storm and tempest," Isa. xxix. 6, etc.; "name and remnant, progeny and offspring," Isa. xiv. 22; "pestilence and bloodshed," Ezek. v. 17; "spear and arrows," Ps. lvii. 5; "for ye shall go out with joy and be led forth with peace," Isa. lv. 12. In conjunction with onomatopœia: "empty, and void, and waste," Nahum, ii. 11; "a day of trouble, and of treading down, and of perplexity," Isa. xxii. 5. As seen from the few examples given above, Alliteration in Hebrew is not restricted, as in Latin, Anglo-Saxon, and Old German, to precisely the same letters; nor is it necessary that the combined words should follow in immediate succession.

Rime and Assonance.

Excluding the congruence of sound in the flexional endings, and confining it to the cases in which the similarity is in a stem-syllable, the number of instances of rime in the Old Testament is comparatively small, and it is always combined with the assonance of the whole word: "the earth mourneth and fadeth away," Isa. xxiv. 4; "the earth shook and trembled," Ps. xviii. 8; "an escaped one and survivor," Jer. xlii. 17, etc.; "waste and void," Gen. i. 2, etc.

Of assonance there is in Hebrew—in which the consonantal element predominates—hardly any instance, except perhaps "a stubborn and rebellious son," Deut. xxi. 18, etc.


While in Alliteration and rime the stress lies on the form, in the play upon words both form and meaning come into consideration. Alliteration and rime combine, preferably, synonyms and coordinated ideas, while playing upon words or punning implies some surprising contrast.

The principal classes of play upon words in the Old Testament may be summed up as follows:

  • 1.Where the words are the same or similar in form (homonyms) and the difference of meaning is contrasted: "Ye have not hearkened unto me, in proclaiming liberty, every one to his brother, . . . behold, I proclaim a liberty for you, . . . to the sword," Jer. xxxiv. 17; "If thou faint in the day of adversity, thy strength is small," Prov. xxiv. 10; "With the jawbone of an ass, heaps upon heaps . . . have I slain," Judges, xv. 16; "For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of fools," Eccl. vii. 6; compare Isa. xxx. 16; Jer. iv. 17, 18; xi. 17; Hosea, viii. 11; Joel, i. 10-12; Dan. xi. 22, etc.
  • 2.Where the same verb is used in different voices: "If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land; but if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword," Isa. i. 19, 20; compare Gen. xlii. 7; Lev. xxvi. 32; I Sam. i. 27, 28; I Kings, viii. 20; Jer. xxiii. 19; Prov. xxvi. 17, etc.
  • 3.Where the words differ in form: "Among the smooth stones of the stream is thy portion," Isa. lvii. 6; "And he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry," Isa. v. 7; "beauty for ashes," Isa. lxi. 3; "He turneth . . . watersprings into dry ground," Ps. cvii. 33; compare Deut. xxxii. 14; Jer. l. 35-38; Ezek. xxviii. 26; Joel, i. 15; Job, v. 21; xxxvi. 15; Eccl. xii. 11, etc.
Play upon Proper Names.

A name, as representing something individual, is especially a tempting mark for a witticism or pun. In Hebrew, moreover (as also in the other Semitic languages), the proper names are still in living contact with the language; their meaning and form are still clear and transparent. Not only are thoughts and sentiments attached to proper names (compare the blessing of Noah, Gen. ix. 27, and that of Jacob, Gen. xlix.), but even most of thehistorical lore is grouped around them. The names of persons, tribes, and places are made to suggest the character attributed to them, or the important events connected with them. The plays upon proper names in the Old Testament may therefore be divided into two classes:

  • (1)Etymological explanations of names; in many of which it is apparent that merely a folk-etymology is aimed at, which is satisfied with the agreement of sound between the name and the appellative that is to explain it. This is the case, for instance, when Gen. v. 29 is explained by (compare Gen. R. and Rashi on the passage); or by I Sam. i. 20 (compare Driver, "Notes on the Hebrew Text of the Books of Samuel," p. 13). Many other instances could be cited.
  • (2)Plays either upon the sense or upon the sound of proper names: . . . "In Heshbon [Counting Town] they have devised evil against it. . . Also thou shalt be cut down, O Madmen [Dunghill]; the sword shall pursue thee," Jer. xlviii. 2; . . . , . . . "For Gaza shall be forsaken . . . and Ekron shall be rooted up," Zephaniah, ii. 4; "And I will cut off the Cherethim," Ezek. xxv. 16; "O thou inhabitants of Lachish, bind the chariot to the swift beast," Micah, i. 13, etc.
Euphonic Figures and Diction.

Like all other embellishments of speech, the figures based on the congruence of sound are an element of higher style. They are therefore most frequent in the Prophets and in the poetical books of the Old Testament. Plays upon words are most frequently to be found in the prophetic speech, which aims at reaching the conscience of the hearer and bringing home to him some truth in a striking manner. They are also of frequent occurrence in the Proverbs, which generally depend largely for their effect upon a happy form and pointedness of expression. But everywhere these figures are merely a casual, not an organic, element of diction.

Word-Plays in the Talmud.

The Talmud sometimes plays upon words in adages and maxims: "The character of a man reveals itself in three things: in his behavior concerning his purse, his cup, and in his anger," 'Er. 65b. Compare Derek Ereẓ Zuṭṭa v.: "Wo is me from my Creator [who punishes sin], wo is me from my sinful inclination," Ber. 61a; "Rather be [innocently] cursed than be cursing," Sanh. 49a; "Eat onions and live in the shadow of thy house" [i.e., rather live poorly than make debts and be compelled to give up thy house], Pes. 114a. The Talmudic literature is especially rich in efforts to supply with etymologies those proper names that the Old Testament has left unexplained. For example: "because he made the people crouch" [i.e., made it degenerate]; or "because he caused strife [i.e., division] among the people"; and "because he caused strife between Israel and their Father in heaven," Jeroboam is called "because" "he looked and did not see [his true position and destiny in history]," Sanh. 101b; "son of Hezekiah" "because he caused Israel to forget their Father in heaven," Sanh. 102b; (compare Nimrod and Amraphel, who are identified, 'Er. 53a and Yalḳ. Gen. 72; Shinar, Shab. 113b; Samson and Delilah, Soṭah 10a and 9b, etc.).

In Post-Talmudic Literature.

Since the seventh century rime has become a regular feature in Hebrew poetry. The composers of piyyuṭim, yoẓerot, seliḥot, and ḳinot indulged even to excess in rimes and alliterations. A further opportunity for this jingling was given in the introductions to books. Sometimes all the words were made to begin with the same letter (compare, for instance, the in the Iggeret of Moses Zacuto, ed. Leghorn, 1780; or the appended to many editions of Jedaiah Penini's "Beḥinat 'Olam"). The Hispano-Jewish writers sometimes formed plays upon words with great skill. So, for instance, Judah Alḥariẓi in his "Maḳamat" (ed. Lagarde, 1883): "Wisdom gives power to the wise; she leads him in the path of life and affords him rest from his toil; when he lies down she watches over him and does not leave him alone," p. 2, § 2, v. 1, "and beauty is turned to disgrace," 17, 14, 28; "On their tongue is prayer, and in their heart perverseness," 17, 4, 34. In the Azharot (hymns dealing with the 613 precepts), in the liturgy of the Feast of Weeks, ascribed to Solomon ibn Gabirol, we find: "And there shall not be a hierodule in the assembly of the holy congregation"; "And thou shalt not practise usury upon the poor."

As an example of play upon words in modern Hebrew, the ingenious epigram of M. B. G. Abudiente may find place here ("Bikkure ha-'Ittim," iii. 22), in which many words are repeated in opposite senses:which may be rendered as follows: "Yestreen thy garment was fine linen and robe a-trailing, lying in thy bed upon scarlet; To-day thy garment is mud and a rotten robe [Amos, vi. 4, after Sanh. 97a], lying in the grave upon worms."

  • Glassius. Philologia Sacra, ed. Dathe, pp. 1335-42;
  • Elsner, Paulus Apostolus et Jesaias Propheta inter se Comparati, pp. 23-27, Breslau, 1821;
  • Gesenius, Lehrgebäude der Hebräischen Sprache, pp. 856-860, §§ 237 et seq., Leipsic, 1830;
  • Wenrich, De Poeseos Hebraicœ atque Arabicœ Origine, etc., pp. 241 et seq., Leipsic, 1843. Besides these briefer notices the subject has been treated in monographs by J. F. Böttcher, De Paronomasia Finitimisque ei Figuris Paulo Apostolo Frequentatis, Leipsic, 1823;
  • J. Christoph Decker, Dissertatio Inauguralis de Paronomasia Sacra, Halle, 1737;
  • Immanuel M. Casanowicz, Paronomasia in the Old Testament, Boston, 1894 (dissertation). For Alliteration in particular, see Julius Ley, De Alliteratione, quœ Vocatur, in Sacris Hebrœorum Litteris Usurpata, Heidelberg, 1859 (program);
  • idem, Die Metrischen Formen der Hebräischen Poesie, Leipsic, 1866;
  • idem, Grundzüge des Rhythmus, des Vers und Strophenbaues in der Hebräischen Poesie, Halle, 1875;
  • idem, in several articles in the Z. D. M. G. xx. 180-184, Jahrbücher für Philologie und Pädagogik, 1864, pp. 246-258, and 1865, pp. 69 et seq.;
  • Samuel Waldberg, Darkc ha-Shinuyim, Lemberg, 1870.
I. M. C.
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