How would you feel if someone referred to you as “Scrooge”? Or, how would you react if you were speaking and a listener said, “Your nose is getting longer”? Finally, what would you say if someone called you “The Scarecrow”?
In each case, you would probably be offended — and rightfully so. After all, the first person is comparing you to the miserly employer in the Charles Dickens’ novel entitled The Christmas Carol. The second person is calling you a liar by referring to the classic children’s story “Pinocchio” by Carlo Lorenzini. And the third person is saying you need a brain, like Dorothy’s friend in The Wizard of Oz by Frank Baum. No, the purpose of this essay is not to teach you how to trade literary insults, but to emphasize the use of allusions.
An allusion is an indirect reference to a well-known person, place, or event from history, from mythology, from literature, or from other works of art. Allusions are often used for three reasons: to catch the reader’s attention, to provide a short but vivid description, and to make a strong connection.
To Catch the Reader’s Attention. People who write newspaper and magazine headlines use allusions frequently to catch the reader’s attention. For instance, articles about Daylight Savings Time might allude to the Biblical verse “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). Stories of betrayal might refer to William Shakespeare’s line in Julius Caesar: “Et Tu, Brutus.” And situations that defy logic might be described as a “Catch 22,” after the 1961 novel by Joseph Heller. One more obvious example is the title of this essay which alludes to the homonym “illusion,” which, like a mirage, is not real.
To Provide a Short but Vivid Description. Speakers and authors often use allusions as a shortcut. Instead of having to describe how cheap someone is, the speaker or author can just say the person is a “Scrooge.” Then, the listener or reader who is familiar with The Christmas Carol will immediately understand the comparison.
One example of an allusion that appears every spring involves the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s basketball tournament. Certain schools — like Duke, Michigan, and Kansas — are traditional powerhouses, and they usually qualify for the tournament each year. Other schools, however, seldom make it to the tournament. As a result, when these schools unexpectedly qualify, sportswriters across the country refer to them as “Cinderella” teams. “Cinderella,” of course, is the fairy tale about the young housemaid who wasn’t even expected at the ball. Yet, when she arrived in a beautiful dress and glass slippers, she attracted the attention of the handsome prince. When these Cinderella teams eventually lose, the allusion is extended. The sportswriters will write that the clock has struck midnight, and these teams have to return to reality.
To Make a Strong Connection. As a writer, you, too, may want to use an allusion occasionally to make a strong connection with your reader. If you want to emphasize an extremely important day in your life, for instance, you might refer to it as “D-day.” This allusion applies to the World War II Allied invasion that liberated France from German occupation and served as a major turning point in the War (June 6, 1944). Or, if you want to describe a particular failure in your life, you may call it your “Waterloo,” a reference to Napoleon Bonaparte’s final defeat in Belgium on June 18, 1815.
An allusion is similar to an inside joke between the writer and the reader. Thus, before you use an allusion, you should be reasonably sure that your intended reader will understand it. If, for instance, your reader is young and not interested in history, references to D-day and Waterloo will not be understood or appreciated. But, if your reader is young and familiar with popular music, you could introduce a story about failure by alluding to the Britney Spears’ song “Oops, I Did It Again.”
If you use an allusion, do you have to document the source? No. If you’re simply referring to a person, place, event, or work of art, no documentation is necessary. Thus, allusions can add life to your writing without making you feel as if you’re writing a research paper.
As a baseball fan, I am tempted to conclude this essay by saying this is the “bottom of the ninth,” an allusion to the last inning of a typical game. However, since this may be the first time some of you have ever thought about using allusions in your writing, I’d rather refer to the beginning of the game. Thus, as the umpire says right after the playing of the national anthem, “Play Ball!”