literary yarn definition

An A to Z Guide to Literary Devices and Tools

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Kelly Jensen

Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen .

View All posts by Kelly Jensen

One of my favorite magazines is the creativity-based  Uppercase . This quarterly publication offers a look at various artists, art forms, and design across the world, and it’s packed with colors and shapes that make it not just fabulous to read, but inspiring to simply page through.

Each issue contains an A–Z feature on a topic and no matter what the focus is, I find myself revisiting this particular piece again and again. It’s a highly designed double spread, and always leads me to leaning new things about arts and crafts I never knew before.

I wanted to take that idea and see it applied to the book world, running a periodic A–Z feature. Last time, I highlighted the parts of a book . This time, let’s take a look at various literary devices and tools used by authors to write. Many of these tools are valuable for readers to think about because they offer insight into what it is that makes a book memorable or effective.

Some of these you likely learned in high school or college English classes, but some might be new to you. In any case, pocket some little nuggets of wisdom for your next game of Jeopardy and prepare to dominate in any literary category.

An A to Z of Literary Devices and Tools

Allusion : An object or phrase used in writing to draw a connection to another object, idea, or circumstance without stating it overtly. This could be a turn of phrase meant to bring to mind a Shakespeare play to the reader’s mind or a popular song or movie at the time of the book’s publication. These are typically included without context to the original work and readers draw the connections themselves.

Bildungsroman : Any coming-of-age story. Though typically realistic or historic in setting, a bildungsroman can be a work of genre fiction as well. This German phrase refers to a story where an adolescent main character — and it doesn’t matter whether it’s an adult, young adult, or middle grade novel — loses their sense of innocence and comes to maturation through the shedding of those illusions.

Canon : What’s often seen as the essential and most important works within literature. Over the years, though, it’s become clear that the canon is biased toward white male authors whose works were most widely distributed and studied and not necessarily representative of the best of literature nor the depth of literature. Titles included within a canon can be deconstructed through philosophical and political lenses, which can be far more interesting than what the canon itself may be.

Deus Ex Machina : From the Greek for “The God Out Of The Machine,” deus ex machina is when something completely unexpected or unrealistic for the story appears to save the main character and/or the story’s conclusion. Though often seen as a disappointment or easy way to resolve a story, in certain genres, the deus ex machina is a hallmark.

Euphemism : The use of a word or phrase in place of another, meant to soften the impact of said word or phrase and be read as more neutral. A common example is “passed away” or “left for a better place” instead of “died” or “dead.”

Fourth Wall : This term comes from theater but has been used throughout books as well. It’s an imaginary wall separating the characters from the audience, and when a character or story “breaks the fourth wall,” it means they’re directly addressing the audience. An excellent example of breaking that wall is the children’s title The Monster At The End of This Book by Jon Stone.

Genre : Books, films, and other media within a category with shared tropes and conventions. Genres may include poetry and fiction, as well as become more specific, including romance, mystery, or science fiction. Genre is not the same as category — e.g. adult books, young adult books — nor is it the same as mood .

Homage : Far from being plagiarism, an homage is a work that honors, elevates, and/or plays with the conventions used in a previous work. There are dozens upon dozens of retellings or remixes of classic literature that could be considered an homage to the original. The key is that an homage pays honor and respect, as opposed to making fun of it (and indeed, a good parody can also be an homage, such as with the film Spaceballs ).

Imagery : A broad, umbrella term for the mental pictures, sounds, smells, and other sensations a reader experiences with a work. A writer evokes imagery for the reader through direct descriptions of images or through any number of literary tools, including simile, metaphor, allusion, and more.

Jargon : If you’ve ever written a book and wondered how you are to understand it, given all of the technical and specific terms used throughout, chances are you’ve read a book loaded with jargon. Jargon is a language specific to an industry or setting. Think: a textbook for database designers or even a cookbook for a specific type or cooking or tool for cooking. Sports, medicine, and other industries each have their own jargon.

Kenning : When a single word is replaced by a compound phrase. This tool of figurative writing was popular in Norse and Old English, but there are a number of kennings used commonly today, including gum-shoe, brown-noser, bookworm, head-hunter, and more.

Literal : It’s likely you know what it means to be literal: you’re giving an account that isn’t metaphorical or exaggerated. In many cases, a literal account is seen as factual, but literal and factual aren’t exclusively synonyms. A literal account and a factual account may or may not be true, either. The term allegory can help differentiate the terms.

Meme : Though the term may be modern, the concept certainly isn’t. A meme is an idea, phrase, or thought that is passed from one person to another. In the internet and social media age, we’ve seen memes on a visual level, as well as on numerous literary levels.

Non sequitur : Latin for “it does not follow.” When something said or mentioned has nothing to do with the conversation or what was previously said. Sometimes these are used as a tool of confusion and other times, they’re for comedic effect. Non sequiturs happen in everyday conversation — scroll your Twitter feed for how that works — and they’re seen in literature.

Oeuvre : The life work of an artist. You can describe all of Shakespeare’s work as his oeuvre, for example.

Purple Prose : Writing that is over-the-top in terms of its use of similes, metaphors, and other imagery such that it becomes silly and potentially nonsense.

Quest : A motif — a recurring element or in this case, style — in which a hero undergoes a challenging journey to benefit their people. These quests can be about seeking knowledge, tools, treasures, or someone who may be in danger. Gilgamesh undergoes a quest, as does Odysseus, among so many others in classic and contemporary storytelling.

Red Herring : Especially popular in thrillers or mysteries, a red herring is an element used to throw readers off about their conclusions in a story. The red herring in a mystery is the character or situation readers are lead to believe is the culprit, but in reality, the writer has used the red herring to distract from the true conclusion.

Satire : Scathing humor or criticism used as a critique. It’s frequently used toward politics or moralities that the satirist disagrees with or finds dangerous. Modern satire is most common in the visual form — The Simpsons and many Saturday Night Live sketches utilize this tool — but it’s also used in classical and modern literature. Satire typically punches up, rather than punches down, meaning that it’s aimed toward those in charge, as opposed to those oppressed or hurt by whatever is the subject at hand.

Trope : Trope has two definitions. The first refers to a literary device used throughout a work of literature or a word used in a figurative sense. A trope within a novel might be the recurring bird imagery or allusions. The second definition for trope is a theme that emerges over and over within a genre. For some, a trope gets tired or cliche, but for other readers, tropes are what make that genre what it is. Dig into a host of tropes , both good and bad.

Understatement : Words or phrases used to minimize the significance of what’s actually happening. A euphemism is an example of an understatement. Understatements are common in speech and can be used with great effect in literature.

Vignette : A short but effective piece of writing. Often a vignette doesn’t have a plot or narrative arc, but it gets a point across on its own or, as has been seen in literature, can be linked with other vignettes to tell a bigger story. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros or Buried Beneath The Baobab Tree by  Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani and Viviana Mazza utilize the vignette in the telling of the story. Vignette is French for “little vine.”

Wanderjahr : This German term for “wander year” has emerged in memoir and similar nonfiction more frequently than in fiction in contemporary times. It simply means a period of time in a character’s life when they travel or do something out of their ordinary routine. Think Eat Pray Love or any experimental memoir of trying out a lifestyle or talent for a year.

Xanaduism : Inspired by the 1927 book The Road to Xanadu by John Livingstone Knowles, Xanaduism is academic research about the sources behind fantasy and other imaginative literature — the word is in reference to Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan.” This word has a less-than-positive connotation, as well, referring to scholarship without credible sources (which makes sense, when you consider the purpose of Xanaduism is to look at fictitious sources).

Yarn : A long, rambling story. The tone of a yarn, which is often an adventure, is colloquial. Some of the characters within Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales may be experts at spinning a yarn.

Zeitgeist : Everything related to a certain time period, but with a particular emphasis on popular culture and trends. The German word for “time ghost” is worthwhile when thinking about popular authors of a particular era, as well as for understanding allusions and descriptions made in books.

If literary devices and tools are something you nerd out over, you might want to pick up a copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms or similar tool to expand your knowledge.

literary yarn definition

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Meaning of yarn in English

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yarn noun ( THREAD )

  • multi-stranded
  • multifilament

yarn noun ( STORY )

  • anti-narrative
  • be another story idiom
  • bodice-ripper
  • broad brushstrokes
  • cautionary tale
  • misdescription
  • running commentary phrase
  • semi-legendary
  • shaggy-dog story
  • write something up

yarn | Intermediate English

Examples of yarn, translations of yarn.

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an object in the shape of an animal, etc. that contains sweets . It is hung up at parties and children hit it with sticks to break it open and release the sweets.

Bumps and scrapes (Words for minor injuries)

Bumps and scrapes (Words for minor injuries)

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Literary Theory and Criticism

Home › Literary Terms and Techniques › Literary Terms and Devices

Literary Terms and Devices

By NASRULLAH MAMBROL on June 26, 2020 • ( 0 )

Aestheticism

European literary movement, with its roots in France, that was predominant in the 1890’s. It denied that art needed to have any utilitarian purpose and focused on the slogan “art for art’s sake.” The doctrines of aestheticism were introduced to England by Walter Pater and can be found in the plays of Oscar Wilde and the short stories of Arthur Symons. In American literature , the ideas underlying the aesthetic movement can be found in the short fiction of Edgar Allan Poe .

Literary mode in which characters in a narrative personify abstract ideas or qualities and so give a second level of meaning to the work, in addition to the surface narrative. Two famous examples of allegory are Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596) and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come, Part I (1678). Modern examples may be found in Nathaniel Hawthorne ’s story “The Artist of the Beautiful” and the stories and novels of Franz Kafka .

Reference to a person or event, either historical or from a literary work, which gives another literary work a wider frame of reference and adds depth to its meaning. For example, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s story “Winter in the Air” gains greater suggestiveness from the frequent allusions to William Shakespeare ’s play The Winter’s Tale (c. 1610-1611), and her story “Swans on an Autumn River” is enriched by a number of allusions to the poetry of William Butler Yeats.

Capacity of language to suggest two or more levels of meaning within a single expression, thus conveying a rich, concentrated effect. Ambiguity has been defined by William Empson in Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) as “any verbal nuance, however, slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language.” It has been suggested that because of the short story’s highly compressed form, ambiguity may play a more important role in the form than it does in the novel.

Anachronism

Event, person, or thing placed outside—usually earlier than—its proper historical era. Shakespeare uses anachronism in King John (c. 1596-1597), Antony and Cleopatra (c. 1606-1607), and Julius Caesar (c. 1599-1600). Mark Twain employed anachronism to comic effect in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889).

Short narration of a single interesting incident or event. An anecdote differs from a short story in that it does not have a plot, relates a single episode, and does not range over different times and places.

Character in fiction who stands in opposition, or rivalry, to the protagonist. In Shakespeare ’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (c. 1600-1601), for example, King Claudius is the antagonist of Hamlet.

Collection of prose or poetry, usually by various writers. Often serves to introduce the work of little-known authors to a wider audience.

Short, concise statement that states an opinion, precept, or general truth, such as Alexander Pope’s “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”

Direct address to a person (usually absent), inanimate entity, or abstract quality. Examples are the first line of William Wordsworth ’s sonnet “London, 1802,” “Milton! Thou should’st be living at this hour,” and King Lear’s speech in Shakespeare ’s King Lear (c. 1605-1606), “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!”

Archetypal theme

Recurring thematic patterns in literature. Common archetypal themes include death and rebirth ( Samuel Taylor Coleridge ’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner , 1798), paradise-Hades (Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”), the fatal woman ( Guy de Maupassant ’s “Doubtful Happiness”), the earth goddess (“Yanda” by Isaac Bashevis Singer), the scapegoat ( D. H. Lawrence ’s “The Woman Who Rode Away”), and the return to the womb (Flannery O’Connor’s “The River”).

Term used by psychologist Carl Jung to describe what he called “primordial images,” which exist in the “collective unconscious” of humankind and are manifested in myths, religion, literature, and dreams. Now used broadly in literary criticism to refer to character types, motifs, images, symbols, and plot patterns recurring in many different literary forms and works. The embodiment of archetypes in a work of literature can make a powerful impression on the reader.

Mood or tone of a work; it is often associated with setting but can also be established by action or dialogue. The opening paragraphs of Poe ’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and James Joyce ’s “Araby” provide good examples of atmosphere created early in the works and pervading the remainder of the story.

Black humor

General term of modern origin that refers to a form of “sick humor” that is intended to produce laughter out of the morbid and the taboo. Examples are the works of Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, Günter Grass, and Kurt Vonnegut.

Work that, by imitating attitudes, styles, institutions, and people, aims to amuse. Burlesque differs from satire in that it aims to ridicule simply for the sake of amusement rather than for political or social change.

Form of writing that focuses on unique qualities of a person and then exaggerates and distorts those qualities in order to ridicule the person and what he or she represents. Writers, such as Flannery O’Connor , have used caricature for serious and satiric purposes in such stories as “Good Country People” and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

Character type

Term can refer to the convention of using stock characters, such as the miles gloriosus (braggart soldier) of Renaissance and Roman comedy, the figure of vice in medieval morality plays, or the clever servant in Elizabethan comedy. It can also describe “flat” characters (the term was coined by E. M. Forster ) in fiction who do not grow or change during the course of the narrative and who can be easily classified.

Similar to crisis, the moment in a work of fiction at which the action reaches a turning point and the plot begins to be resolved. Unlike crisis, the term is also used to refer to the moment in which the reader’s emotional involvement with the work reaches its point of highest intensity.

Comic story

Form encompassing a wide variety of modes and inflections, such as parody, burlesque, satire, irony, and humor. Frequently, the defining quality of comic characters is that they lack self-awareness; the reader tends not to identify with them but perceives them from a detached point of view, more as objects than persons.

Struggle that develops as a result of the opposition between the protagonist and another person, the natural world, society, or some force within the self. In short fiction, the conflict is most often between the protagonist and some strong force either within the protagonist or within the given state of the human condition.

French for tale, a conte was originally a short adventure tale. In the nineteenth century, the term was used to describe a tightly constructed short story. In England, the term is used to describe a work longer than a short story and shorter than a novel.

Turning point in the plot, at which the opposing forces reach the point that a resolution must take place.

Study and evaluation of works of literature. Theoretical criticism, as for example in Aristotle ’s De poetica, c. 334-323 b.c.e. (Poetics, 1705), sets out general principles for interpretation. Practical criticism ( Coleridge ’s lectures on Shakespeare , for example) offers interpretations of particular works or authors.

Deconstruction

Literary theory, primarily attributed to French critic Jacques Derrida , which has spawned a wide variety of practical applications, the most prominent being the critical tactic of laying bare a text’s self-reflexivity, that is, showing how it continually refers to and subverts its own way of meaning.

Defamiliarization

Term coined by the Russian Formalists to indicate a process by which the writer makes the reader perceive the concrete uniqueness of an object, event, or idea that has been generalized by routine and habit.

Literally, “unknotting”; the conclusion of a drama or fiction, when the plot is unraveled and the mystery solved.

Detective story

A “classic” detective story (or “mystery”) is a highly formalized and logically structured mode of fiction in which the focus is on a crime solved by a detective through interpretation of evidence and clever reasoning. Many modern practitioners of the genre, however, such as Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith, and Ross Macdonald, have placed less emphasis on the puzzle-like qualities of the detective story and have focused instead on characterization, theme, and other elements of mainstream fiction. The form was first developed in short fiction by Edgar Allan Poe ; Jorge Luis Borges has also used the convention in short stories.

Deus ex machina

Latin, meaning “god out of the machine.” In the Greek theater, it referred to the use of a god lowered out of a mechanism onto the stage to untangle the plot or save the hero. It has come to signify any artificial device for the easy resolution of dramatic difficulties.

Any technique used in literature in order to gain a specific effect. Poets use the device of figurative language, for example, while novelists may use foreshadowing, flashback, and so on, in order to create desired effects.

Theory that fiction is a dialogic genre in which many different voices are held in suspension without becoming merged into a single authoritative voice. Developed by Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin .

Didactic literature

Literature that seeks to instruct, give guidance, or teach a lesson. Didactic literature normally has a moral, religious, or philosophical purpose, or it will expound a branch of knowledge (as in Virgil’s Georgics, c. 37-29 b.c.e.; English translation, 1589). It is distinguished from imaginative works, in which the aesthetic product takes precedence over any moral intent.

Hypothetical world of a story, as if it actually existed in real space and time. It is the illusory universe of the story created by its linguistic structure.

Doppelgänger

Double or counterpart of a person, sometimes endowed with ghostly qualities. A fictional doppelgänger often reflects a suppressed side of his or her personality, as in Fyodor Dostoevski ’s novella Dvoynik (1846; The Double, 1917) and the short stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann. Isaac Bashevis Singer and Jorge Luis Borges, among other modern writers, have also employed the doppelgänger with striking effect.

Dream vision

Allegorical form common in the Middle Ages, in which the narrator or a character falls asleep and dreams a dream that becomes the actual framed story. Subtle variations of the form have been used by Hawthorne in “Young Goodman Brown” and by Poe in “The Pit and the Pendulum.”

Theory that the universe is explicable in terms of two basic, conflicting entities, such as good and evil, mind and matter, or the physical and the spiritual.

Total, unified impression, or impact, made upon the reader by a literary work. Every aspect of the work—plot, characterization, style, and so on—is seen to directly contribute to this overall impression.

A literary application of this religious term was popularized by James Joyce in his book Stephen Hero (1944): “By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself.” Many short stories since Joyce’s collection Dubliners (1914) have been analyzed as epiphanic stories in which a character or the reader experiences a sudden revelation of meaning.

Brief prose work, usually on a single topic, that expresses the personal point of view of the author. The essay is usually addressed to a general audience and attempts to persuade the reader to accept the author’s ideas.

Essay-sketch tradition

The earliest sketches can be traced to the Greek philosopher Theophrastus in 300 b.c.e., whose character sketches influenced seventeenth and eighteenth century writers in England, who developed the form into something close to the idea of character in fiction. The essay has an equally venerable history, and, like the sketch, had an impact on the development of the modern short story.

Brief anecdote or tale introduced to illustrate a moral point in medieval sermons. By the fourteenth century these exempla had expanded into exemplary narratives. Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” and “The Pardoner’s Tale” are exempla.

Existentialism

Philosophy and attitude of mind that gained wide currency in religious and artistic thought after the end of World War II. Typical concerns of existential writers are human beings’ estrangement from society, their awareness that the world is meaningless, and their recognition that one must turn from external props to the self. The writings of Albert Camus and Franz Kafka provide examples of existentialist beliefs.

Part or parts of a work of fiction that provide necessary background information. Exposition not only provides the time and place of the action but also introduces readers to the fictive world of the story, acquainting them with the ground rules of the work. In the short story, exposition is usually elliptical.

One of the oldest narrative forms. Usually takes the form of an analogy in which animals or inanimate objects speak to illustrate a moral lesson. The most famous examples are the fables of Aesop, a Greek who used the form orally around 600 b.c.e.

Term coined by Robert Scholes and used in contemporary literary criticism to describe novels radically experimental in subject matter, style, and form. Like the Magical Realists, fabulators mix realism with fantasy. The works of Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and William Gass provide examples.

Form of folktale in which supernatural events or characters are prominent. Fairy tales usually depict realms of reality beyond those of the natural world and in which the laws of the natural world are suspended. Among the most famous creators of fairy tales are Germany’s Brothers Grimm.

The Bulgarian Critic Tzvetan Todorov defines the fantastic as a genre that lies between the uncanny and the marvelous. Whereas the marvelous presents an event that cannot be explained by the laws of the natural world and the uncanny presents an event that is the result of hallucination or illusion, the fantastic exists as long as the reader cannot decide which of these two applies. Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898) is an example of the fantastic.

Figurative language

Any use of language that departs from the usual or ordinary meaning to gain a poetic or otherwise special effect. Figurative language embodies various figures of speech, such as irony, metaphor, simile, and many others.

Scene that depicts an earlier event; it can be presented as a reminiscence by a character in a story, or it can simply be inserted into the narrative.

Short prose narrative, usually handed down orally, found in all cultures of the world. The termis often used interchangeably with myth, fable, and fairy tale.

Organizing principle in a work of literature, the manner in which its elements are put together in relation to its total effect. The term is sometimes used interchangeably with structure and is often contrasted with content. If form is the building, content is what is in the building and what the building is specifically designed to express.

Frame story

Story that provides a framework for another story (or stories) told within it. The form is ancient and is used by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400). In modern literature, the technique has been used by Henry James in The Turn of the Screw (1898), Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness (1902), and John Barth in Lost in the Funhouse (1968).

When used in connection with a frame story, the framework is the narrative setting, within which other stories are told. The framework may also have a plot of its own. More generally, the framework is similar to structure, referring to the general outline of a work.

When a work is approached as thematically or stylistically specific to male or female characteristics or concerns, it is said to be “gendered.”

Genre study

Concept of studying literature by classification and definition of types or kinds, such as tragedy, comedy, epic, lyrical, and pastoral. First introduced by Aristotle in Poetics, the genre principle has been an essential concomitant to the basic proposition that literature can be studied scientifically.

Gothic genre

Form of fiction developed in the late eighteenth century which focuses on horror and the supernatural. Examples include the short fiction of Edgar Allan Poe. In modern literature, the gothic genre can be found in the fiction of Truman Capote.

Characterized by a breakup of the everyday world by mysterious forces, the form differs from fantasy in that the reader is not sure whether to react with humor or horror. Examples include the stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann and Franz Kafka.

Greek term for “overshooting” that refers to the use of gross exaggeration for rhetorical effect, based on the assumption that the reader will not be persuaded of the literal truth of the overstatement. Can be used for serious or comic effect.

Often defined as the verbal stimulation of sensory perception. Although the word betrays a visual bias, imagery, in fact, calls on all five senses. In its simplest form, imagery re-creates a physical sensation in a clear, literal manner; it becomes more complex when a writer employs metaphor and other figures of speech to recreate experience.

In medias res

Latin phrase used by Horace, meaning literally “into the midst of things” that refers to a literary technique of beginning the narrative when the action has already begun. The term is used particularly in connection with the epic, which traditionally begins in medias res.

Initiation story

Story in which protagonists, usually children or young persons, go through an experience, sometimes painful or disconcerting, that carries them from innocence to some new form of knowledge and maturity. William Faulkner ’s “The Bear,” Nathaniel Hawthorne ’s “Young Goodman Brown,” Alice Walker ’s “To Hell with Dying,” and Robert Penn Warren ’s “Blackberry Winter” are examples of the form.

Interior monologue

Defined as the speech of a character designed to introduce the reader directly to the character’s internal life, the form differs from other monologues in that it attempts to reproduce thought before any logical organization is imposed upon it. An example is Molly Bloom’s long interior monologue at the conclusion of James Joyce ’s Ulysses.

Termoften used to refer to modern or postmodern fiction that is presented self-consciously as a fiction or fabulation rather than a mimesis of external reality. The best-known practitioners of irrealism are John Barth , Robert Coover , and Donald Barthelme.

From the German, meaning “leading motif.” Any repetition—of a word, phrase, situation, or idea—that occurs within a single work or group of related works.

Literary short story

Term that was current in American criticism in the 1940’s to distinguish the short fiction of Ernest Hemingway, Eudora Welty, Sherwood Anderson , and others from the popular pulp and slick fiction of the day.

Local color

Term that usually refers to a movement in literature, especially in the United States, in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The focus was on the environment, atmosphere, and milieu of a particular region. For example, Mark Twain wrote about the Mississippi region; Sarah Orne Jewett wrote about New England. The term can also be used to refer to any work that represents the characteristics of a particular region.

Lyric short story

Form in which the emphasis is on internal changes, moods, and feelings. The lyric story is usually open-ended and depends on the figurative language generally associated with poetry. Examples of lyric stories are the works of Ivan Turgenev , Anton Chekhov , Katherine Mansfield , Sherwood Anderson, Conrad Aiken, and John Updike .

Malaprop/Malapropism

Malapropism occurs when one word is confused with another because of a similarity in sound between them. The term is derived from the character Mistress Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan ’s The Rivals (1775), who, for example, uses the word “illiterate” when she really means “obliterate” and mistakes “progeny” for “prodigy.”

German fairy tales, as collected in the works of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm or in the works of nineteenth century writers such as Novalis and E. T. A. Hoffmann.

Metafiction

Refers to fiction that manifests a reflexive tendency, such as Vladimir Nabokov ’s Pale Fire (1962), and John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969). The emphasis is on the loosening of the work’s illusion of reality to expose the reality of its illusion. Such terms as “irrealism,” “postmodernist fiction,” and “antifiction” are also used to refer to this type of fiction.

Figure of speech in which two dissimilar objects are imaginatively identified (rather than merely compared) on the assumption that they share one or more qualities: “She is the rose, the glory of the day” (Edmund Spenser). The term is often used in modern criticism in a wider sense to identify analogies of all kinds in literature, painting, and film.

Figure of speech in which an object that is closely related to a word comes to stand for the word itself, such as when one says “the White House” when meaning the “president.”

Minimalist movement

School of fiction writing that developed in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s and that John Barth has characterized as the “less is more school.” Minimalism attempts to convey much by saying little, to render contemporary reality in precise, pared-down prose that suggests more than it directly states. Leading minimalist writers are Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie . A character in Beattie’s short story “Snow” (in Where You’ll Find Me, 1986) seems to sum up minimalism: “Any life will seem dramatic if you omit mention of most of it.”

Mise en abème

Small story inside a larger narrative that echoes or mirrors the larger narrative, thus containing the larger within the smaller.

Modern short story

Literary formthat dates from the nineteenth century and is associated with Edgar Allan Poe (who is often credited with inventing the form) and Nathaniel Hawthorne in the United States, Honoré de Balzac in France, and E. T. A. Hoffmann in Germany. In his influential critical writings, Poe defined the short story as being limited to “a certain unique or single effect,” to which every detail in the story should contribute.

Any speech or narrative presented by one person. It can sometimes be used to refer to any lengthy speech, in which one person monopolizes the conversation.

Incident or situation in a story that serves as the basis of its structure, creating by repetition and variation a patterned recurrence and consequently a general theme. Russian Formalist critics distinguish between bound motifs, which cannot be omitted without disturbing the thematic structure of the story, and unbound motifs, which serve merely to create the illusion of external reality. In this sense, motif is the same as leitmotif.

Anonymous traditional story, often involving supernatural beings or the interaction between gods and human beings and dealing with the basic questions of how the world and human society came to be as they are. Myth is an important termin contemporary literary criticism. Northrop Frye, for example, has said that “the typical forms of myth become the conventions and genres of literature.” By this, he means that the genres of comedy, romance, tragedy, and irony (satire) correspond to seasonal myths of spring, summer, autumn, and winter.

Account in prose or verse of an event or series of events, whether real or imagined.

Narrative persona

“Persona” means literally “mask”: It is the self created by the author and through whom the narrative is told. The persona is not to be identified with the author, even when the two may seem to resemble each other. The narrative persona in George Gordon, Lord Byron’s Don Juan (1819-1824), for example, may express many sentiments of which Byron would have approved, but he is nevertheless a fictional creation who is distinct from the author.

Narratology

Theoretical study of narrative structures and ways of meaning. Most all major literary theories have a branch of study known as narratology.

Character who recounts the narrative. There are many different types of narrators: The first-person narrator is a character in the story and can be recognized by his or her use of “I”; third-person narrators may be limited or omniscient. In the former, the narrator is confined to knowledge of the minds and emotions of one or, at most, a few characters. In the latter, the narrator knows everything, seeing into the minds of all the characters. Rarely, second-person narration may be used. (An example can be found in Edna O’Brien’s A Pagan Place, 1973.)

Fictional prose form, longer than a short story or novelette. The term embraces a wide range of types, but the novel usually includes a more complicated plot and a wider cast of characters than the short story. The focus is often on the development of individual characterization and the presentation of a social world and a detailed environment.

Novella, Novelette, Novelle, Nouvelle

These terms all refer to the form of fiction that is longer than a short story and shorter than a novel. Novella, the Italian term, is the term usually used to refer to English-language works in this genre, such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898). Novelle is the German term; nouvelle the French; “novelette” the British. The term “novel” derives from these terms.

Wide-ranging term that can include everything from gossip to myths, legends, folktales, and jokes. Among the terms used by Stith Thompson to classify oral tales (The Folktale, 1951) are Märchen, fairy tale, household tale, conte populaire, novella, hero tale, local tradition, migratory legend, explanatory tale, humorous anecdote, and merry tale.

Oral tradition

Material that is transmitted by word of mouth, often through chants or songs, from generation to generation. Homer’s epics, for example, were originally passed down orally and employ formulas to make memorization easier. Often, ballads, folklore, and proverbs are also passed down in this way.

Short, simple, and usually allegorical story that teaches a moral lesson. In the West, the most famous parables are those told in the Gospels by Jesus Christ.

Statement that initially seems to be illogical or self-contradictory yet eventually proves to embody a complex truth. In New Criticism, the term is used to embrace any complexity of language that sustains multiple meanings and deviates from the norms of ordinary language usage.

Literary work that imitates or burlesques another work or author for the purpose of ridicule. Twentieth century parodists include E. B. White and James Thurber.

Periodical essay/sketch

Informal in tone and style and applied to a wide range of topics, the periodical essay originated in the early eighteenth century. It is associated in particular with Joseph Addison and Richard Steele and their informal periodical, The Spectator.

Personification

Figure of speech which ascribes human qualities to abstractions or inanimate objects, as in these lines by W. H. Auden: “There’s Wrath who has learnt every trick of guerrilla warfare,/ The shamming dead, the night-raid, the feinted retreat.” Richard Crashaw’s “Hope, thou bold taster of delight” is another example.

Way in which authors arrange their material not only to create the sequence of events in a play or story but also to suggest how those events are connected in a cause-and-effect relationship. There is a great variety of plot patterns, each of which is designed to create a particular effect.

Point of view

Perspective from which a story is presented to the reader. In simplest terms, it refers to whether narration is first person (directly addressed to the reader as if told by one involved in the narrative) or third person (usually a more objective, distanced perspective).

Postcolonial

Literary approach that focuses on English-language texts from countries and cultures formerly colonized or dominated by the United States or the British Empire, and other European countries. Postcolonialists focus on the literature of such regions as Australia, New Zealand, Africa, or South America, and such cultural groups as African Americans and Native Americans.

Although this term is so broad it is interpreted differently by many different critics, it basically refers to a trend by which the literary work calls attention to itself as an artifice rather than a mirror held up to external reality.

Protagonist

Originally, in the Greek drama, the “first actor,” who played the leading role. The term has come to signify the most important character in a drama or story. It is not unusual for a work to contain more than one protagonist.

Puns occur when words that have similar pronunciations have entirely different meanings. The results may be surprise recognition of unusual or striking connections, or, more often, humorously accidental connections.

Literary technique in which the primary convention is to render an illusion of fidelity to external reality. Realism is often identified as the primary method of the novel form; the realist movement in the late nineteenth century coincided with the full development of the novel form.

Rhetorical device

Rhetoric is the art of using words clearly and effectively, in speech or writing, in order to influence or persuade. A rhetorical device is a figure of speech, or way of using language, employed to this end. It can include such elements as choice of words, rhythms, repetition, apostrophe, invocation, chiasmus, zeugma, antithesis, and the rhetorical question (a question to which no answer is expected).

Rogue literature

From Odysseus to Shakespeare’s Autolocus to Huckleberry Finn, the rogue is a common literary type. He is usually a robust and energetic comic or satirical figure whose roguery can be seen as a necessary undermining of the rigid complacency of conventional society. The picaresque novel (pícaro is Spanish for “rogue”), in which the picaro lives by his wits, is perhaps the most common formof rogue literature.

Originally, any work written in Old French. In the Middle Ages, romances were about knights and their adventures. In modern times, the termhas also been used to describe a type of prose fiction in which, unlike the novel, realism plays little part. Prose romances often give expression to the quest for transcendent truths. Examples of the form include Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851).

Romanticism

Movement of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which exalted individualism over collectivism, revolution over conservatism, innovation over tradition, imagination over reason, and spontaneity over restraint. Romanticism regarded art as self-expression; it strove to heal the cleavage between object and subject and expressed a longing for the infinite in all things. It stressed the innate goodness of human beings and the evils of the institutions that would stultify human creativity.

Form of literature that employs the comedic devices of wit, irony, and exaggeration to expose, ridicule, and condemn human folly, vice, and stupidity. Justifying satire, Alexander Pope wrote that “nothing moves strongly but satire, and those who are ashamed of nothing else are so of being ridiculous.”

Circumstances and environment, both temporal and spatial, of a narrative. Setting is an important element in the creation of atmosphere.

Short story

Concise work of fiction, shorter than a novella, that is usually more concerned with mood, effect, or a single event than with plot or extensive characterization.

Type of metaphor in which two things are compared. It can usually be recognized by the use of the words “like,” “as,” “appears,” or “seems”: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” (Muhammad Ali); “The holy time is quiet as a nun” (William Wordsworth).

Brief narrative form originating in the eighteenth century, derived from the artist’s sketch. The focus of a sketch is on a single person, place, or incident; it lacks a developed plot, theme, or characterization.

Differing from plot, a story line is merely the events that happen; plot is how those events are arranged by the author to suggest a cause-and-effect relationship.

Stream of consciousness

Narrative technique used in modern fiction by which an author tries to embody the total range of consciousness of a character, without any authorial comment or explanation. Sensations, thoughts, memories, and associations pour out in an uninterrupted, prerational, and prelogical flow. Examples are James Joyce ’s Ulysses (1922), Virginia Woolf ’s To the Lighthouse (1927), and William Faulkner ’s The Sound and the Fury (1929).

Structuralism

Structuralism is based on the idea of intrinsic, self-sufficient structures that do not require reference to external elements. A structure is a system of transformations that involves the interplay of laws inherent in the system itself. The structuralist literary critic attempts, by using models derived from modern linguistic theory, to define the structural principles that operate intertextually throughout the whole of literature as well as principles that operate in genres and in individual works.

Style is the manner of expression, or how the writer tells the story. The most appropriate style is that which is perfectly suited to conveying whatever idea, emotion, or other effect that the author wishes to convey. Elements of style include diction, sentence structure, imagery, rhythm, and coherence.

General term for a simple prose or verse narrative. In the context of the short story, a tale is a story in which the emphasis is on the course of the action rather than on the minds of the characters.

Humorous tale popular in the AmericanWest; the story usually makes use of realistic detail and common speech, while telling a tale of impossible events that most often focus on a single legendary, superhuman figure, such as Paul Bunyan or Davy Crockett.

Loosely defined as what a literary work means, theme is the underlying idea, the abstract concept, that the author is trying to convey: “the search for love,” “the growth of wisdom,” or some such formulation. The theme of William Butler Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” for example, might be interpreted as the failure of the attempt to isolate oneself within the world of art.

Strictly defined, tone is the authors’ attitudes toward their subjects, their personas, themselves, their audiences, or their societies. The tone of a work may be serious, playful, formal, informal, morose, loving, ironic, and so on; it can be thought of as the dominant mood of a work, and it plays a large part in the total effect.

Literally “turn” or “conversion”; a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is used in a way that deviates from the normal or literal sense.

Verisimilitude

When used in literary criticism, verisimilitude refers to the degree to which a literary work gives the appearance of being true or real, even though the events depicted may in fact be far removed from the actual.

Sketch, essay, or brief narrative characterized by precision, economy, and grace. The term can also be applied to brief short stories, less than five hundred words long.

Oral tale or a written transcription of what purports to be an oral tale. The yarn is usually a broadly comic tale, the classic example of which is Mark Twain’s bluejay yarn. The yarn achieves its comic effect by juxtaposing realistic detail and incredible events; tellers of the tale protest that they are telling the truth; listeners know differently.

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Definition of yarn noun from the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary

literary yarn definition

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National Book Foundation > IIR > YARN

YARN, Winner of the 2011 Innovations in Reading Prize More about this author >

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YARN

2011 Innovations in Reading Prize Winner

Founded in 2010, the Young Adult Reading Network (YARN) is the first independent online literary journal dedicated to young adult (YA) literature; they publish short fiction, poetry, essays, and interviews, as well as an editors’ blog and lesson plans for teachers.

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literary yarn definition

literary yarn definition

Huswifery Summary & Analysis by Edward Taylor

  • Line-by-Line Explanation & Analysis
  • Poetic Devices
  • Vocabulary & References
  • Form, Meter, & Rhyme Scheme
  • Line-by-Line Explanations

literary yarn definition

“Huswifery” is poem written around 1685 by the Puritan preacher Edward Taylor. The poem is addressed directly to God, making it at once a kind of plea and prayer. Through an extended metaphor in which God is a cloth maker and the speaker acts as God's cloth-making tools, the speaker offers himself up as God's humble earthly servant. By following God’s instructions and living a deeply religious life, argues the poem, people can best know and serve God.

  • Read the full text of “Huswifery”

literary yarn definition

The Full Text of “Huswifery”

1 Make me, O Lord, thy Spining Wheele compleate.

2 Thy Holy Worde my Distaff make for mee.

3 Make mine Affections thy Swift Flyers neate

4 And make my Soule thy holy Spoole to bee.

5 My Conversation make to be thy Reele

6 And reele the yarn thereon spun of thy Wheele.

7 Make me thy Loome then, knit therein this Twine:

8 And make thy Holy Spirit, Lord, winde quills:

9 Then weave the Web thyselfe. The yarn is fine.

10 Thine Ordinances make my Fulling Mills.

11 Then dy the same in Heavenly Colours Choice,

12 All pinkt with Varnisht Flowers of Paradise.

13 Then cloath therewith mine Understanding, Will,

14 Affections, Judgment, Conscience, Memory

15 My Words, and Actions, that their shine may fill

16 My wayes with glory and thee glorify.

17 Then mine apparell shall display before yee

18 That I am Cloathd in Holy robes for glory.

“Huswifery” Summary

“huswifery” themes.

Theme God and Humankind

God and Humankind

  • See where this theme is active in the poem.

Line-by-Line Explanation & Analysis of “Huswifery”

Make me, O Lord, thy Spining Wheele compleate. Thy Holy Worde my Distaff make for mee. Make mine Affections thy Swift Flyers neate And make my Soule thy holy Spoole to bee. My Conversation make to be thy Reele And reele the yarn thereon spun of thy Wheele.

literary yarn definition

Make me thy Loome then, knit therein this Twine: And make thy Holy Spirit, Lord, winde quills: Then weave the Web thyselfe. The yarn is fine.

Lines 10-12

Thine Ordinances make my Fulling Mills. Then dy the same in Heavenly Colours Choice, All pinkt with Varnisht Flowers of Paradise.

Lines 13-16

Then cloath therewith mine Understanding, Will, Affections, Judgment, Conscience, Memory My Words, and Actions, that their shine may fill My wayes with glory and thee glorify.

Lines 17-18

Then mine apparell shall display before yee That I am Cloathd in Holy robes for glory.

“Huswifery” Poetic Devices & Figurative Language

Alliteration.

  • See where this poetic device appears in the poem.

Extended Metaphor

“huswifery” vocabulary.

Select any word below to get its definition in the context of the poem. The words are listed in the order in which they appear in the poem.

  • Thy / Thyselfe
  • Spining Wheele
  • Swift Flyers
  • Thereon / Therein
  • Holy Spirit
  • Winde Quills
  • Fulling Mills
  • See where this vocabulary word appears in the poem.

Form, Meter, & Rhyme Scheme of “Huswifery”

Rhyme scheme, “huswifery” speaker, “huswifery” setting, literary and historical context of “huswifery”, more “huswifery” resources, external resources.

Edward Taylor's Life and Work — A valuable resource on Taylor's biography and output from the Poetry Foundation. 

Edward Taylor's Sermons — A collection of Taylor's religious sermons.  

A Lecture on Taylor — Interesting thoughts on Edward Taylor's output from a university lecturer.

Puritan Poetry — Poems by other writers from the same era. 

Taylor's Place — An article about Taylor's place in American (and English) poetry.

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Definition of 'yarn'

IPA Pronunciation Guide

yarn in American English

Yarn in british english, examples of 'yarn' in a sentence yarn, related word partners yarn, trends of yarn.

View usage over: Since Exist Last 10 years Last 50 years Last 100 years Last 300 years

In other languages yarn

  • American English : yarn / yˈɑrn /
  • Brazilian Portuguese : fio
  • Chinese : 纱线
  • European Spanish : hilo
  • French : fil
  • German : Garn
  • Italian : filato
  • Japanese : 糸
  • Korean : 직물 편물용의 실
  • European Portuguese : fio
  • Spanish : hilo
  • Thai : ไหมพรม

Browse alphabetically yarn

  • All ENGLISH words that begin with 'Y'

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Spinning a Yarn: Maritime History in the Age of Sail

Spinning a yarn or two during routine work and in off hours was an integral part of shipboard life in the Age of Sail.

Marcus Rediker offers a dramatic view of the Age of Sail in Outlaws of the Atlantic (Beacon Press, 2014) through the stories of common sailors, slaves, indentured servants, pirates, and other outlaws. He demonstrates the importance of maritime history in understanding the formation of the modern Western world, from the bottom up. The following excerpt from Chapter 1, “The Sailor’s Yarn,” deals with the development of a distinct storytelling genre among sailors.

Maritime History According to the Sailors

Let us explore briefly the genesis of the sailor’s yarn, which grows from four related worlds of work: textile manufacture, fishing, rope making, and seafaring. The term “yarn” in its original definition refers to spun fiber—cotton, wool, silk, or flax—prepared for use in weaving or knitting. On the eighteenth-century waterfront the meaning shifted to cord and rope: a fisherman’s net is made of yarn, as are the strands (eighteen-, twenty-, and twenty-five-thread yarns) in rope making. We are getting closer to the ship.

“Yarn” soon takes on a meaning in nautical slang: spinning a yarn is telling a story or tale, usually one of maritime adventure, about dramatic shipwrecks, bloody battles, tyrannical officers, or determined resistance. These were often long, complex, and colorful narratives, incorporating humorous, marvelous, and fantastic elements as well as communal lore, practical knowledge of class and work, and death-defying experience. The yarn is perpetually invented and reinvented in each and every maritime setting, whether at sea or ashore, as individual storytellers add their own talents and fashion their tales for an ever-changing audience.

The maritime story is called a yarn because of a specific labor process on the ship, where work was collective, lonely, and noncontinuous. Ships were isolated for long periods, and the crew lived in close, forced proximity. Many times there was nothing to do. This could happen in the doldrums, when there was little or no wind, and it could happen when the ship was clipping along at a good pace in high winds. Captains therefore created “make-work” of various kinds to fill the porous workday, holy-stoning the deck (scrubbing and whitening it with sandstone) being one of the most dreaded and infamous among sailors.

Another was “picking oakum.” The running rigging on a deep-sea vessel was made of hemp rope covered with tar. When the tar wore out (and the rope went slack when wet), the rigging had to be replaced. The old hemp rope would be cut into short strands, a couple of feet long, and sailors would gather on deck to pick it apart—picking oakum. This was dull and tedious work, hard on the fingers, even though the hands of sailors were rough to begin with from hauling rope. The sailors sat together and untwisted the hemp rope to individual fibers, then they rolled and twisted the hemp fibers back together. The oakum would then be used on the ship for caulking: mixed with tar, it would be forced by the ship’s carpenter, using special tools—a caulking iron and a mallet—between the seams, or intervals, of the hull planking, to stanch leaks. (Picking oakum always had low and slavish associations. It was often part of “hard labor” in a workhouse or a prison. It was historically linked to coerced, unfree work, as sailors well understood.)

As sailors sat together picking apart the yarn of their ropes, someone would spin a yarn for a bored, unhappy, unwilling, ready-made audience of common labor. The yarn, then, was in several ways a spoken-word equivalent of the work song. One of its purposes was to entertain, to help to overcome drudgery, to make the time pass, to transport both speaker and listener to a different, better place. It was, in short, born of alienation at work aboard the ship, which proved to be a nursery of narrative talent.

Forms and Functions of the Yarn in the Age of Sail

Sailors’ yarns took many forms and served many functions in the wooden world of the deep-sea sailing vessel. They helped to recruit and socialize new sailors into the shipboard order. They taught fundamental knowledge about the ship and its social relations, not least about survival in a deadly line of work. As part of that survival they imparted the history and practices of resistance, which shaped the politics of the ship and the larger Atlantic society. They engaged and inflamed the imagination; they fueled fantasy. In doing all of these useful and important things and more, they entertained.

Entertainment

An engraving titled Saturday Night at Sea represents a yarn-spinning occasion on the lower deck. Seventeen sailors gather on the gun deck of a man-of- war, around a bearded storyteller who holds a tankard of grog in one hand as he gestures expansively with the other. His fellow tars relax, taking in the tale while seated on overturned buckets, boxes, cannon, and the deck itself. The sailors have made the workplace their own. Heads are cocked in rapt attention to the spoken word; faces beam with smiles. This is a significant moment in the social life of the ship.

Recruitment

A major purpose of the yarn was to reproduce maritime culture, that is, to emphasize the adventurous, sometimes heroic aspects of the work so as to lure young men to go to sea and join the fraternity of deep-sea sailors. Many went precisely because they had heard a good yarn, as explained by Samuel Robinson, who recalled that as a boy growing up in Garlieston, Scotland, “my fancy for a sea life was excited by the long yarns which James Cooper [an older schoolmate] used to spin to us after being a voyage to the West Indies.” Thereafter “an irresistible desire for a seafaring life so completely carried me away, that it became a matter of perfect indifference to me where the ship went, if not to the bottom, provided I was aboard her—or in what trade engaged, if not a pirate.” Robinson wanted not only to hear stories but to acquire the exotic experience that would allow him to tell them.

An early-eighteenth-century London sailor named Walter Kennedy took the same route to a different end. Kennedy was known during his time in the Royal Navy to have a special love for pirate stories. He endlessly requested them of his shipmates, listened carefully to them, memorized them, and retold them himself, avidly and repeatedly. Then he acted on them. He found out in 1718 that Woodes Rogers had been commissioned by the British government to sail to the Bahama Islands, a notorious pirate haunt, in order to reestablish proper British government and hang a pack of sea robbers there if need be. Kennedy signed on to the expedition, not to help Rogers establish good order in Providence but to desert him as soon as he got there and to join the pirates! This he did, sailing under the black flag for more than two years and indeed dying under it as the Jolly Roger was raised above the gallows on which he was hanged, back in London, on July 21, 1721.

Yarns also served to socialize new workers into the social order of the ship by teaching basic knowledge about the ship in its technical or social dimensions. Sailors had to learn to face danger with courage and to live with want, to endure and survive in harsh, dangerous, often deadly conditions. Yarns might convey what a sailor should do in storms, in battle, or after shipwrecks. Stories would also help to promote common values, especially the necessity of cooperation and solidarity in such an insecure work environment, in which no one had much control over life and death, whether by disease, accident, weather, or warfare.

Stories imparted useful information, as demonstrated again and again by William Dampier, the famous buccaneer turned explorer, naturalist, and popular writer, who led the historic process by which sailors’ yarns appeared on the printed page. His book A New Voyage Around the World , first published in 1697 and reprinted many times thereafter, was one of the best-selling books of the era and indicative of how voyage literature was the single most popular genre of writing in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In that book Dampier recounted an incident that took place on Mindanao in the Philippines, where a sailor found a special leaf, which he boiled and pounded to make “an excellent Salve,” which many of the sailors used to treat skin ulcers with “great benefit.” The man who found and prepared the leaves “had his first knowledge of them in the Isthmus of Darien, from one of the Indians there.” Here was a kind of practical knowledge, embedded in a story, that circulated around the world, from Central America to East Asia, on board a ship, carried in the memory of a sailor. Many yarns had a basis in science. Indeed Dampier himself has been lauded for his many contributions to scientific knowledge.

Dampier also captured the political and economic effects of storytelling. He noted that on the Coromandel coast of southeastern India the captain had all kinds of trouble getting sailors back aboard their ship after shore leave: “Our seamen are apt to have great Notions of I know not what Profit and Advantages to be had serving the Mogul [the king of western India]; nor do they want for fine stories to encourage one another to it. It was what these Men had long been thinking and talking of as a fine thing; but now they went upon it in earnest.” Through their yarns—“fine stories” with “great notions”— seamen circulated among themselves useful information about the maritime labor market in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, and, as Dampier indicates, they did not talk only: their yarns were guides to action, much to the chagrin of an English master in a place where maritime labor was scarce.

Spinning a yarn also taught resistance, beginning in many cases with the human body, when, for example, sailors used the scars on their backs as prompts to tell of a mutiny, strike, desertion, defiance, or any other transgression of shipboard social order. The common sailor, observed Ned Ward in the early eighteenth century, was, after a sharp sting by the cat-o’-nine-tails, “as proud of the Wales on his Back, as a Holy-Land Pilgrim is of a Jerusalem Print.” Indeed, sailors called those scars their “tiger stripes.” Scars of punishment became the marks of honor and distinction through stories. Sailors could therefore “read” the bodies of their shipmates; it was never difficult to see who had been, and likely still was, a troublemaker. The scars themselves and the yarns about them were important markers of identity on the lower deck. Like ritual scarifications in many stateless societies, these marks signaled initiation into a broader community, in this case that of international deep-sea sailors.

Reprinted with permission from Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates, and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail by Marcus Rediker and published by Beacon Press, 2014.

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COMMENTS

  1. yarn

    From Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English yarn /jɑːn $ jɑːrn/ noun 1 [ uncountable] thick thread made of cotton or wool, which is used to knit things 2 [ countable] informal a story of adventures, travels etc, usually made more exciting and interesting by adding things that never really happened The old captain would often spin (=tell)...

  2. Story vs Yarn: Differences And Uses For Each One

    A yarn, on the other hand, is a type of story that is often exaggerated or embellished for the purpose of entertainment. It may involve elements of humor, adventure, or suspense, and is typically told in a casual or informal setting.

  3. Tale vs Yarn: When to Opt for One Term Over Another

    A yarn is a story that is often exaggerated or embellished for entertainment purposes. It is typically told in a casual or informal setting, and may not necessarily have a structured plot or characters. Yarns are often used to entertain or amuse the listener, and can be humorous, suspenseful, or fantastical.

  4. Yarn Definition & Meaning

    1 a : a continuous often plied strand composed of either natural or man-made fibers or filaments and used in weaving and knitting to form cloth b : a similar strand of another material (such as metal, glass, or plastic) 2 [from the idiom spin a yarn "to tell a tale"] : a narrative of adventures especially : a tall tale a roaring good yarn yarn

  5. An A to Z Guide to Literary Devices and Tools

    Trope: Trope has two definitions. The first refers to a literary device used throughout a work of literature or a word used in a figurative sense. A trope within a novel might be the recurring bird imagery or allusions. The second definition for trope is a theme that emerges over and over within a genre. ... Yarn: A long, rambling story. The ...

  6. Yarn Definition & Meaning

    A long, often elaborate narrative of real or fictitious adventures; an entertaining tale. American Heritage A tale or story, esp. one that seems exaggerated or hard to believe. Webster's New World Similar definitions Synonyms: crock cock-and-bull story fish story alibi tall-story fabrication recital narration

  7. Yarn Definition & Meaning

    YARN meaning: 1 : a long, thin piece of cotton, wool, etc., that is thicker than thread and that is used for knitting and weaving; 2 : an exciting or interesting story

  8. YARN

    a story, usually a long one with a lot of excitement or interest: He knew how to spin a good yarn (= tell a good story). SMART Vocabulary: related words and phrases (Definition of yarn from the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary & Thesaurus © Cambridge University Press) yarn | American Dictionary

  9. YARN

    a story, usually a long one with a lot of excitement or interest: He knew how to spin a good yarn (= tell a good story). SMART Vocabulary: related words and phrases (Definition of yarn from the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary & Thesaurus © Cambridge University Press) yarn | Intermediate English

  10. Definitions of Literary Terms and Devices

    The main character (protagonist) of a literary work, especially one who exhibits admirable traits such as courage and righteousness; in mythology, heroes/heroines also typically possess supernatural powers or other qualities. Elizabeth Bennet is the heroine of Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice.

  11. Literary Terms and Devices

    Concept of studying literature by classification and definition of types or kinds, such as tragedy, comedy, epic, lyrical, and pastoral. ... the classic example of which is Mark Twain's bluejay yarn. The yarn achieves its comic effect by juxtaposing realistic detail and incredible events; tellers of the tale protest that they are telling the ...

  12. yarn noun

    [countable] (informal) a long story, especially one that is exaggerated or invented He used to spin yarns (= tell stories) about his time in the army. Extra Examples Topics Literature and writing c2 Oxford Collocations Dictionary Word Origin Idioms pitch a story/line/yarn (to somebody)

  13. Examples of Literary Terms for Kids

    Learning basic literary terms is something anyone can do, even kids! Find out how fun and easy learning literary language is with this list of examples. ... "Yarns of the People" by Carl Sandburg "There was an old woman tossed up in a blanket, seventeen times as high as the moon." - "The Old Woman Tossed Up in a Blanket" by Walter Crane

  14. Yarn

    1. (Textiles) a continuous twisted strand of natural or synthetic fibres, used in weaving, knitting, etc 2. (Literary & Literary Critical Terms) informal a long and often involved story or account, usually telling of incredible or fantastic events 3. spin a yarn informal a. to tell such a story b. to make up or relate a series of excuses vb

  15. YARN definition and meaning

    Definition of 'yarn' Word Frequency yarn (jɑːʳn ) Word forms: plural yarns 1. variable noun Yarn is thread used for knitting or making cloth . She still spins the yarn and knits sweaters for her family. ...vegetable-dyed yarns. 2. countable noun

  16. Textile

    Textile - Spun, Knitted, Weaving: Yarns can be described as single, or one-ply; ply, plied, or folded; or as cord, including cable and hawser types. Single, or one-ply, yarns are single strands composed of fibres held together by at least a small amount of twist; or of filaments grouped together either with or without twist; or of narrow strips of material; or of single synthetic filaments ...

  17. Literary Definition & Meaning

    literary: [adjective] of, relating to, or having the characteristics of humane learning or literature. bookish 2. of or relating to books.

  18. YARN

    YARN. 2011 Innovations in Reading Prize Winner. Founded in 2010, the Young Adult Reading Network (YARN) is the first independent online literary journal dedicated to young adult (YA) literature; they publish short fiction, poetry, essays, and interviews, as well as an editors' blog and lesson plans for teachers.

  19. Huswifery Poem Summary and Analysis

    The yarn is fine. 10 Thine Ordinances make my Fulling Mills. 11 Then dy the same in Heavenly Colours Choice, ... Definitions and examples of 136 literary terms and devices. Instant PDF downloads. Refine any search. Find related themes, quotes, symbols, characters, and more.

  20. Literary Yarns Books

    Literary Yarns Books. Showing 1-16 of 16. The Scarlet Letter (Paperback) by. Nathaniel Hawthorne. (shelved 1 time as literary-yarns) avg rating 3.43 — 841,560 ratings — published 1850. Want to Read. Rate this book.

  21. YARN definition in American English

    a continuous twisted strand of natural or synthetic fibres, used in weaving, knitting, etc. 2. informal. a long and often involved story or account, usually telling of incredible or fantastic events. 3. See spin a yarn. verb. 4. (intransitive) to tell such a story or stories. Collins English Dictionary.

  22. Spinning a Yarn: Maritime History in the Age of Sail

    The term "yarn" in its original definition refers to spun fiber—cotton, wool, silk, or flax—prepared for use in weaving or knitting. On the eighteenth-century waterfront the meaning shifted to cord and rope: a fisherman's net is made of yarn, as are the strands (eighteen-, twenty-, and twenty-five-thread yarns) in rope making.

  23. PDF Whispers of the Outback: Exploring the Australian Bush in Literature

    Ripping Yarn, is the oldest literary convention and tells tales or stories of daring feats in new and unknown places. It's often talked about new bush heroes who survive natural disasters; hence, this type of idea is new for England but important to developing the new Australian identity as well as spreading the awareness back to Europe ...