Since I was in college, studying German, Russian, and a few other languages, I have enjoyed learning new words and their etymology. Here are a few of the more interesting literary terms I have found. Many of these are rather obscure or even antiquated, but by picking up these new words, I pick up the concepts behind them, which gives me ideas to use in my writing. Most of these are from my lexicon over at The Chamber Magazine. I will add to this list as time permits.

anacoluthon  1. A construction involving a break in grammatical sequence, as It makes me so—I just get angry. 2. An instance of anacoluthia.

apophasis  Denial of one’s intention to speak of a subject that is at the same time named or insinuated, as “I shall not mention Caesar’s avarice, nor his cunning, nor his morality.”

atmosphere of the mind  “A phrase invented by Henry James to denote what the subjective writer of the novel tries to convey to the reader.  After a time we in a sense ‘inhabit’ the writer’s mind, breathe that air and are permeated by his vision.” (1)

catachresis Misuse or strained use of words, as in a mixed metaphor, occurring either in error or for rhetorical effect.

conte cruel  “The conte cruel is, as The A to Z of Fantasy Literature by Brian Stableford states, a “short-story genre that takes its name from an 1883 collection by Villiers de l’Isle Adam, although previous examples had been provided by such writers as Edgar Allan Poe. Some critics use the label to refer only to non-supernatural horror stories, especially those that have nasty climactic twists, but it is applicable to any story whose conclusion exploits the cruel aspects of the ‘irony of fate.’”[1] The collection from which the short-story genre of the conte cruel takes its name is Contes cruels (1883, tr. Sardonic Tales, 1927) by Villiers de l’Isle Adam. Also taking its name from this collection is Contes cruels (Cruel Tales), a two-volume set of about 150 tales and short stories by the 19th-century French writer Octave Mirbeau, collected and edited by Pierre Michel and Jean-François Nivet and published in two volumes in 1990 by Librairie Séguier.” (3)

Some noted writers in the conte cruel genre are Charles Birkin and Maurice LevelH.P. Lovecraft observed of Level’s fiction in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927), “This type, however, is less a part of the weird tradition than a class peculiar to itself– the so-called conte cruel, in which the wrenching of the emotions is accomplished through dramatic tantalizations, frustrations, and gruesome physical horrors.”[2]

Noted science fiction authors of conte cruels include Thomas M. Disch and John Sladek.[3] The conte cruel was the standard narrative form of soft science fictionby the 1980s.[3]

coup de theatre  (French) “An unexpected and theatrically startling event which twists the plot and action.  For instance, the sudden leap into activity of the supposedly invalid and bedridden wife of General St. Pe in Jean Anouilh’s play La Valse des Toreadors.“

danse macabre  (French)  “Also known as the Dance of Death…The Dance of Death (in art and literature) depicted a procession or dance in which the dead lead the living to the grave.   It  was a reminder of mortality, the ubiquity of death and of the equality of all men in that state.  It was also a reminder of the need for repentance. Apart from its moral and allegorical elements, it was very often satirical in tone.  The dead might be represented by a number of figures (usually skeletons) or by a single personification of death…The theme or subject was especially popular in the late Middle Ages and the 16th c. [century] and the influence has continued to our own time…The motif (q.v.) of the dance is echoed in many ubi sunt (q.v.) poems, and we find macabre elements in the works of many writers:  in the somber tragedies of Webster and Tourneur, in the work of Poe, Baudelaire and Strindberg, and especially in Espronceda’s eerie poem El Estudiante de Salamanca (1839),  whose Don Juan hero dances with a corpse…The personification of death and the motif of the macabre is recurrent and appears to exercise  a considerable fascination for writers and artists. Death is, as it were, presented as a kind of sardonic joke.” (1)

dark literature is a nebulous term and is generally applied to any written or cinematic work or depiction that may have elements of horror but might be considered outside the horror mainstream. However, a work may be considered “dark” and yet have no elements of horror. Examples of this would be works considered pessimistic, nihilistic, or depressing. Almost all genres of literature have subgenres or occasional elements that may be considered dark. Two good, quick discussions of what constitutes dark literature can be found at shalleemcarthur.com and at languagehumanities.org. For more information on what The Chamber Magazine considers dark literature, see the discussion near the bottom of the homepage.

dark romance (from darkpassions4.wordpress.com)

Dark romance is a lot like how it sounds–romance novels with darker themes, with mature content for adult readers. Dark romance novels often come with content warnings, and they can explore BDSM, role playing, abduction, rape fantasies, and kidnapping and captivity. Some dark romances do explore lack of consent. Readers who enjoy these books are often looking for sexy and steamy romances with a helping of emotional catharsis, and dark romances deliver! Read on for some of the best dark romance novels to add to your TBR. Tailored Book Recommendations, mytbr.com, October 28, 2022

A sub-genre of romance that contains controversial themes throughout the plot or characters with questionable morale and background. This can also be described as the’ villain love interest’ trope manifesting into a genre.

Person A: I’m looking for a book with a love story between a dangerous hero with questionable intentions and a strong, morally grey heroine.
Person B: I think you’ll enjoy a dark romance book. Specifically by Tillie Cole, T. M. Frazier, or K. Webster.by ataurusinabookshop August 4, 2020 [via urbandictionary.com October 22, 2022]

Dark romance generally contains kidnapping or entrapment, psychological and/or physical abuse, and dubious consent, often because of revenge, a misunderstanding, or a debt that must be paid. The hero is usually an inflicter of most if not all of that. There is a huge audience for it, but no matter how tortured or “justified” the hero is, I just can’t get past it to see him as redeemable or loveable in any way.KBoards.com, October 28, 2022

A dark romance book is a type of book that generally has a dark or suspenseful theme. They are usually about love and relationships, but can also be about other topics. Dark romance books often have elements of mystery, suspense, and often contain graphic content.

Kidnapping, entrapment, psychological and/or physical abuse, and dubious consent are all common examples of dark romance. BDSM, abductions, rape fantasies, kidnappings and captivitys, and role-playing are some of the topics discussed in some dark romance novels.Tagari.com, October 28, 2022

To get technical, dark romance books are not romances in the strictest sense of the word. Depending on who you ask, they can be anything from a standard romance novel with dark tones or themes (as with something like Eve Silver’s Dark Gothic series), to a black sheep cousin of New Adult, to a subset of Erotic Romance that indulges itself in all things frightening and taboo.

I think the latter is the most accurate, since the works you find categorized as dark romance are much more akin to erotica than they are to romance. When ever I work with this category I keep thinking of a quote from Tiffany Reisz’s The Siren, about how “Romance is sex plus love.” and “Erotica is sex plus fear.” Anyone who has spent time delving into dark romance can tell you that fear is what makes the category run. At its heart, dark romance is a catalog of our deepest fears. Just in the dark romance books on this list alone you’ll find:

  • Abductions
  • Dubious (very) consent or straight up non-consent
  • Rape fantasies
  • Stalking
  • Sex trafficking and/or sexual slavery
  • BDSM based plot lines with extremely limited boundaries
  • Violence, which can be sexual or non-sexual and, depending on the author, extreme
  • Torture
  • Heroes and/or heroines who are assassins, mob members, serial killers, etc.
  • Complex revenge narratives
  • Any relationship that can be construed as taboo
  • Faustian bargains with people with dubious morals, or no morals.

Bookriot.com, October 28, 2022

de profundis  out of the depths (of sorrow, despair, etc.).  De profundis means “out of the depths” in Latin. It is the opening of Latin translation of Psalm 130 which continues “Out of the depths I cry to you.” Today the term can be used as a phrase to convey sadness or as an adverb.


early 15c., “a calling up or driving out of evil spirits,” from Late Latin exorcismus, from Greek exorkismos “administration of an oath,” in Ecclesiastical Greek, “exorcism,” from exorkizein “exorcise, bind by oath,” from ex “out of” (see ex-) + horkizein “cause to swear,” from horkos “oath,” which is of uncertain origin. Some linguists propose a connection with herkos “fence,” “in which case it would properly denote the oath as the bounds that one assumes, a restriction, tie, or obligation” or “a magical power that fences in the swearer” [Beekes], but this is not accepted by all. Earlier in the same sense was exorcization (late 14c.).

Etymonline.com November 8, 2022

ficelle  “the term used by Henry James in the prefaces to some of his novels to denote a fictional character whose role as confidant or confidante is exploited as a means of providing the reader with information while avoiding direct address from the narrator…In French, the word denotes a string used to manipulate a puppet, or more broadly, any underhand trick.” (2)


early 15c., ficcioun, “that which is invented or imagined in the mind,” from Old French ficcion “dissimulation, ruse; invention, fabrication” (13c.) and directly from latin fictionem (nominative fictio) “a fashioning or feigning,” noun of action from past participle stem of fingere “to shape, form, devise, feign,” originally “to knead, form out of clay,” from PIE root *dheigh- “to form, build.”

Meaning “prose works (not dramatic) of the imagination” is from 1590s, at first often including plays and poems. Narrower sense of “the part of literature comprising novels and short stories based on imagined scenes or characters” is by early 19c. The legal sense (fiction of law) is from 1580s. A writer of fiction could be a fictionist (1827). The related Latin words included the literal notion “worked by hand,” as well as the figurative senses of “invented in the mind; artificial, not natural”: Latin fictilis “made of clay, earthen;” fictor “molder, sculptor” (also borrowed 17c. in English), but also of Ulysses as “master of deceit;” fictum “a deception, falsehood; fiction.”

from Etymonline.com November 8, 2022

ghoul (from Webster’s II New Riverside University Dictionary) “…1. An evil spirit or demon in Moslem folklore held to plunder graves and feed on corpses.  2. A grave robber. 3. One who delights in the loathsome….”  The following is from The Encyclopedia of Demons and Demonology by Rosemary Ellen Guiley:

“A demon who feeds on the flesh of human beings, especially travelers, children, or corpses stolen out of graves.  Ghoulish entities are universal.  They are prominent in Arabic lore; the name is from the Arabic terms ghul (masculine) and ghula (feminine), which mean ‘demon.’  There are several types of ghouls in Arabic lore; the most feared is the female type that has the ability to appear as a normal, flesh-and-blood woman.  Such a creature marries an unsuspecting man, who becomes her prey…Ghouls are nocturnal creatures who inhabit graveyards, ruins, and other lonely places.  Sometimes they are described as dead humans who sleep for long periods in secret graves, then awake, rise, and feast on both the living and the dead.  Ghouls also personify the unknown terrors held by the desert and may be compared to the LAMIAE and LILITH night terror and childbirth demons…”

goblin (The following is from The Encyclopedia of Demons and Demonology by Rosemary Ellen Guiley)

“A wandering sprite who attaches itself to households and both helps and plagues the residents.  Goblins are comparable to low-level demons, not inherently evil, but mischievous, the equivalent of brownies in England and Scotland, kobalds in Germany, domoviks in Russia.  The Greeks called such spirits kobaloi, or “rogues” or “tricksters.”  Goblin is a French term.  A hobgoblin is a nasty type of goblin, intent on doing harm…”

grand guignol  (French) “a popular French form of melodrama featuring bloody muders, rapes, and other

Grand Guignol poster from grandguignol.com

Grand Guignol poster
from grandguignol.com

sensational outrages, presented in lurid and gruesome detail.  It is named after Guignol, a French puppet-character similar to Mr. Punch.  The term is now often applied to horror movies;  while in contemporary fiction, several of Angela Carter’s stories are studies in Grand Guignol.” (2)   For more information visit http://www.grandguignol.com/

hadal  1. of or pertaining to the greatest ocean depths, below approximately 20,000 feet (6500 meters).   2. of or pertaining to the biogeographic region of the ocean bottom below the abyssal zone.   Hadal entered English in the mid-1900s, and comes from the name Hades, the Greek god of the underworld.

isolato a person who is spiritually isolated from or out of sympathy with his or her times or society.

horror (from Webster’s II New Riverside University Dictionary) “…1. A strong and painful feeling of fear and repugnance 2. Intense dislike: ABHORRENCE…3. One that causes horror. 4. Informal. Something unpleasant, disagreeable, or ugly…5. Slang. Intense nervous depression or anxiety…”

Here are the words for horror in four other languages:

  • German:  (from The New Cassell’s German Dictionary, 1971) das Entsetzen, Grausen, der Abscheu, Schauder; Schrecken, Greuel…[Note that for “horror” in the sense of the literary genre German uses the English:  “Horror“.  For example, Horrorfilmis a horror movie.]
  • French:  (from The Bantam New College French and English Dictinary, 1991) la horreuravoir horreur de to have a horror of; commettre des horreurs to commit atrocities; dire des horreurs to say obscene things; dire des horreurs de to say shocking things about.  Finally, [from the Internet] horror film is film d’horreur.
  • Spanish: (from The University of Chicago Spanish Dictionary, 1971) el horror   It can also mean atrocity.  Dar horror is to cause fright or to terrify.  Tenerle horror a unois to have a strong dislike for someone.  The Random House Latin American Spanish Dictionary (1997) adds enormity to its possible meanings.
  • Latin: (from Cassell’s Latin & English Dictionary, 2002) horror ~oris,  bristling, shuddering; roughness of speech; dread, fright, especially religious dread, awe, by metonymy object of dread; a terror

logorrhoea “Excessive verbosity and prolixity. Vulgarly known as ‘verbal diarrhoea’”. (1)

macrology  “verbose repetition by way of long words and phrases” (1)

Malleus Maleficarum  The title is Latin for The Hammer of Witches; not to be used by witches, but on witches.  The following is from The Encyclopedia of Demons and Demonology by Rosemary Ellen Guiley.

“The most influential and important witch hunter’s guide of the Inquisition.  Published first in German in 1487, the Malleus Maleficarum was translated into dozens of editions throughout Europe and England and was the leading reference for witch trials on the Continent for about 200 years.  It was adopted by both Protestant and Catholic civil and ecclesiastical judges.  It was second only to the Bible in sales until John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress was published in 1678.  The book gives instructions for interrogating, trying, and punishing accused witches and details the nature, characteristics, and behavior of demons and the devil…”

mordacious 1. sharp or caustic in style, tone, etc.  2. biting or given to biting.

mystique de la merde (French)  “Not exactly the ‘mystique of shit’, but a term denoting a preoccupation with the seamier, muddier, bloodier aspects of life, as well as, excessively, with sex and money.  The term was first used by Robert E. Fitch in 1956, and is a coarser version of mystique de la boue.  Among modern writers, Joyce, Genet, Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and William Burroughs have all, from time to time, have exploited the possibilities of merde.” (1)

nemesis  “retribution or punishment for wrongdoing; or the agent carrying out such punishment, often personified by Nemesis, a minor Greek goddess responsible for carrying out the vengeance of the gods against erring humans.  The term is applied especially to the retribution meted out to the protagonist of a tragedy for his or her insolence or hubris.” (2)

oppression The following is from The Encyclopedia of Demons and Demonology:

“Demonic influence over a person that involves total domination of the victim’s will, either through a horrendous bombardment of external terrors or through an internal, psychological breakdown.  Oppression follows INFESTATION and can progress to full demonic POSSESSION.  It is also referred to as “vexation…”

palter  1. To talk or act insincerely or deceitfully; lie or use trickery. 2. To bargain with; haggle.  3. To act carelessly; trifle.

pleonasm “the use of unnecessary additional words;  or a phrase in which such needless repetition occurs, e.g. at this moment in time“. (2)

poete maudit  “a French phrase for an ‘accursed’ poet, usually a brilliant but self-destructive writer misunderstood by an indifferent society.  The name for this romantic stereotype comes from the title of Paul Verlaine’s collection of essays on Mallarme, Rimbaud, and other French poets, Les poetes maudits (1884).”


late 14c., poetrie, “poetry, composition in verse; a poem; ancient literature; poetical works, fables, or tales,” from Old French poetrie (13c.), and perhaps directly from Medieval Latin poetria (c. 650), from Latin poeta (see poet). In classical Latin, poetria meant “poetess.”

Figurative use is from 1660s. Old English had metergeweorc “verse,” metercræft “art of versification.” Also scop-cræft “the poet’s art.” Modern English lacks a true verb form in this group of words, though poeticize (1804), poetize (1580s, from French poétiser), and poetrize (c. 1600) have been tried. Poetry in motion (1826) perhaps is from poetry of motion (1813) “dance” (also poetry of the foot, 1660s). Poetry slam is by 1993.

Etymonline.com November 8, 2022

psychomachy  “a battle for the soul.  The term comes from the Latin poem Psychomachia (c. AD400) by Prudentius, describing a battle between virtues and vices for the soul of man.”  (2)

sarcasm  “…a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain…a mode of satirical wit depending for its effect on bitter, caustic, and often ironic language that is usually directed against an individual… the use or language of sarcasm…French or Late Latin; French sarcasme, from Late Latin sarcasmos,from Greek sarkasmos, from sarkazein to tear flesh, bite the lips in rage, sneer, from sark-, sarx flesh; probably akin to Avestan thwarəs- to cut”…First Known Use: 1550″ (5)  The adjectival form is sarcastic.

sardonic  “characterized by bitter or scornful derision; mocking; cynical;sneering…[first use] 1630-40; alteration of earlier sardonian (influenced by Frenchsardonique) < Latin sardoni (us) (< Greek sardónios of Sardinia) + -an; alluding toa Sardinian plant which when eaten was supposed to produce convulsive laughterending in death” (4) The corresponding noun is  sardonicism.

Schauerroman (German) “shudder novel” “The German equivalent of the Gothic novel (q.v.) in English and related to the horror story (q.v.).  ‘Shudder’ because it is a spine-chiller which gives you ‘the shivers’.” (1)

solecism “a grammatical error:  or, more loosely, any mistake that exposes the perpetrator’s ignorance.  Adjective:  solecistic.”  (2)


early 15c., “something that intimidates, an object of fear,” from Old French terreur (14c.), from Latin terrorem (nominative terror) “great fear, dread, alarm, panic; object of fear, cause of alarm; terrible news,” from terrere “fill with fear, frighten,” from PIE root *tres- “to tremble” (see terrible).

From c. 1500 as “fear so great as to overwhelm the mind.” Meaning “quality of causing dread” is attested from 1520s. Sense of “a person fancied as a source of terror” (often with deliberate exaggeration, as of a naughty child) is recorded from 1883. Terror bombing first recorded 1941, with reference to German air attack on Rotterdam. Terror-stricken is from 1831. The Reign of Terror in French history (March 1793-July 1794) was the period when the nation was ruled by a faction whose leaders made policy of killing by execution anyone deemed an impediment to their measures; so called in English from 1801. Old English words for “terror” included broga and egesa.

Etymonline.com November 8, 2022

theatre of cruelty  “a term introduced by the French actor Antonin Artaud in a series of manifestos in the 1930s, collected as Le Theatre et son double (1938).  It refers to his projected revolution in drama, whereby the rational ‘theatre of psychology’ was to be replaced by a more physical and primitive rite intended to shock the audience into an awareness of life’s cruelty and violence.   The idea, derived partly from Surrealism, was that the audience should undergo a catharsis through being possessed by a ‘plague’ or epidemic of irrational responses.   Artaud’s own attempts to put this theory into dramatic practice failed, and he was locked up for some time as a lunatic.  Some later dramatists, though, have developed these principles more successfully:  a celebrated instance was Peter Brook’s production in 1964 of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade.” (2)

topos  a convention or motif, especially in a literary work; a rhetorical convention.

uncanny, the  “a kind of disturbing strangeness evoked in some kinds of horror story and related fiction.  In Tzvetan Todorov’s theory of the fantastic,  the uncanny is an effect produced by stories in which the incredible events can be explained as the products of the narrator’s or protagonist’s dream, hallucination, or delusion.  A clear case of this is Edgar Allan Poe’s tale “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843) in which the narrator is clearly suffering from paranoid delusions.   In tales of the marvellous [sic; US spelling marvelous], on the other hand, no such psychological explanation is offered and strange events are taken to be truly supernatural.” (2) [Slattery’s note:  this would classify Lovecraft’s works under tales of the marvellous.]

verbocrap “A type of jargon (q.v.) language commonly used by verbocrats, and thus dear to bureaucrats and semi-literate officials of all kinds.  It is marked by polysyllabic circumlocutions, crude syntax, faulty grammar and a self-important orotund tone; what A.P. Herbert called ‘Jungle English’ or ‘Dolichologia’…(1)

verisimilitude “Likeness to the truth, and therefore the appearance of being true or real even when fantastic…” (1)

verism  “the doctrine that literature or art should represent the truth (reality),  however disagreeable that truth might be.  A verist believes this.”  (1)


late Old English (replacing Old English fers, an early West Germanic borrowing directly from Latin), “line or section of a psalm or canticle,” later “line of poetry” (late 14c.), from Anglo-French and Old French vers “line of verse; rhyme, song,” from Latin versus “a line, row, line of verse, line of writing,” from PIE root *wer- (2) “to turn, bend.” The metaphor is of plowing, of “turning” from one line to another (vertere = “to turn”) as a plowman does.

The English New Testament first was divided fully into verses in the Geneva version (1550s). Meaning “metrical composition” is recorded from c. 1300; as the non-repeating part of a modern song (between repetitions of the chorus) by 1918.

Etymonline.com November 8, 2022

Vice, the   “a stock character in medieval morality plays;  he is a cynical kind of fool in the service of the Devil, and tries to tempt others in a comical but often sinister manner.  The Vice is believed to be the ancestor of some later dramatic villains like Shakespeare’s Iago, and of some more comic characters like his Falstaff.” (2)

Weltschmerz  “The German word for world-weariness (literally ‘world-ache’), a vague kind of melancholy often associated with Romantic poetry.”  (2)


1.  The Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory by J. A. Cuddon, Penguin Books, 1991.

2. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms by Chris Baldick, Oxford University Press, 1990.

  1. From Wikipedia

4.  From Dictionary.com

5.  From merriam-webster.com

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