Definitions and Secondary Sources
Below is a list of literary forms generally classified as “short” along with definitions and resources for further research. Many of these definitions are comparative; they do not exhaust the potential meanings of the term and require the reader to link them to other forms. (Updated: Oct. 2021)
NOTE: if you find short literary forms that are not on this list, please send them to me with a definition and source! Thanks.
admonition: (F reminder or instruction) to suggest or remind as a form of advice or warning. The use of past conduct to warn against future failures.
anecdote: A brief account of, or a story about, an individual or an incident and can be serious, satirical, witty, humorous, or factual. The anecdote is often considered a digression from, though usually illustrative of, a larger narrative (Cuddon).
Ex: On September 04, 2019, Donald Trump shared a weather map of hurricane Dorian with an inaccurate path of the storm drawn with a sharpie marker. The ordeal, in part, highlights the president’s penchant for lying and his refusal to let even the most trivial items go (Vox, The incredibly absurd Trump/CSS SharpieGate feud, Explained, Sept 06, 2019).
aphorism: A terse statement of a truth or dogma; a pithy generalization, often couched in a mystery, which may or may not be witty (Morson/Cuddon). Aphorisms contrast with dicta and riddles, which not only regard all significant questions as answerable but also claim to have finally answered them. For dicta, the world is a riddle that has been solved; for riddles, all clues are available for the wise to answer; an apothegm, however, expresses a truth without a foundationSee Also apothegm, dictum, maxim, thought, sentence, riddle.
Ex: The Lord, whose shrine is at Delphi, neither speaks nor conceals, but gives a sign. —Heraclitus
apothegm: (Gk: To utter from) A short statement of mystery, usually used to instruct. In the renaissance, Erasmus defined an apothegm as a witty reply to a well known proverb or aphorism. Overtime, apothegms become cliché. Apothegm are related to maxims and aphorisms (Morson). See Also aphorism, dictum, sentence, riddle.
Ex: Haste makes waste; time heals all wounds;
caption: a caption is a piece of text that accompanies a visual image. The purpose of a caption is almost always to clarify the meaning of an image, though some satirical works play with the relationship of image to text. Captions are often defined as secondary to the image, thus their role in clarifying or limiting the possible significations of images.
casus: (L ‘case or event’) From early Roman medieval law, a “case” was a particular event that could be used to justify legal decisions. By the high middle ages, casus was the genre itself, or the contents of the law, which in no way related to particular events. “Case Study” in the modern sense of research began in the nineteenth century and continues today through close examination of individual cases and their relationships to larger cultural or social circumstances. Cases are either outliers (extreme) or representative (normal) (Ragin).
charm: see spell.
cliché: (F ‘stereotype plate’) A trite, over-used expression which has lost its connection to context. A very large number of aphorisms, apothegms, and idioms have become clichés through excessive use (Cuddon).
comment: a verbal or written statement that is a reaction to, or description of, something else.
commonplace: (L ‘loci communes’) A commonplace is an aide-memoire used to remember important, necessary, or even trivial details. Stemming from oral cultures, common places usually applied strange or outlandish images to that which should be remembered. Commonplace books and notebooks became popular in the renaissance and are used to jot down or note important ideas, proverbs, themes, quotations, words and phrases for future use (Cuddon). See topos.
curse: a solemn utterance intended to invoke a supernatural power to inflict harm or punishment on someone or something.
Ex: He put a curse on me.
dictum: (L “saying or pronouncement”) Dicta (pl.) often rely on their own existence for authority, rather than express wonder or mystery. Dicta offer supreme confidence in a truth long sought and now attained. Dicta appear particularly frequently in eras imagining they have dispelled darkness (the seventeenth-century rationalists) and in disciplines claiming to have at last achieved scientific status in the social sciences (Morson).
Ex: The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation. Jeremy Bentham (18th century)
emblem: (Gk ‘engraving or decorative inlay’) A combination of a motto with a picture. An emblem was first used as a rhetorical and poetic device in Augsburg, Germany in 1532 and was popular well into the eighteenth century. Emblems combined allegorical images with poetic tropes in the form of an inscriptio, pictura, and subscriptio, or a title, a picture, and an interpretive poem. From tombstones to monuments, clothing to furniture, emblematic inscriptions emphasized ornamental details in relation to images, rather than a universal form or subservient relationship of image to text (or text to image). (Russell/Daly)
enigma: (Gk ‘dark’) see riddle.
epigram: (Gk ‘inscription’) A short, witty statement in verse or prose which may be complimentary, satiric, enigmatic, or aphoristic. Originally an inscription on a monument or statue, the epigram developed into a literary genre in Greek and Roman literature and was extremely popular in the European renaissance. The Epigram distinguishes itself from wisdom poetry (aphorism, apothegm) in that it is always specific, whether in imagery, mood, addressee, or theme. In more recent times, the verse epigram has become relatively rare, but very many (especially from the sixteenth century onwards) have used the form in prose or speech to express something tersely and wittily (Cuddon).
epigraph: Four meanings may be distinguished: (a) an inscription on a statue, stone or building; (b) the writing (legend) on a coin; (c) a quotation on the title page of a book; (d) a motto heading a new section or paragraph (Cuddon).
episode: (Gk ‘incident within a narrative) Two meanings may be distinguished: (a) an event or incident within a longer narrative; a digression; (b) a section into which a serialized work is divided (Cuddon).
epistle: a letter.
epitaph: (Gk ‘writing on a tomb’) Inscription on a tomb or grave; a kind of valediction which may be solemn, complimentary, witty or even flippant (Cuddon).
epyllion: (Gk ‘little epos’, ‘scrap of poetry’) The sense of ‘little epic’ appears to date from the 19th c., when it was used to describe a short narrative poem in dactylic hexameters (Cuddon).
essay: (F essai, ‘attempt’) A composition, usually in prose (Pope’s Moral Essays in verse are an exception), which may be of only a few hundred words (like Bacon’s Essays) or of book length (like Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding) and which discusses, formally or informally, a single topic or a variety of linked topics. It is one of the most flexible and adaptable of all literary forms (Cuddon).
exemplum: (L ‘example’) A short narrative used to illustrate a moral. The term applies primarily to the stories used in medieval sermons (Cuddon).
exhortation: (L to argue, appeal, or incite): to urge. a form of encouragement to a certain act or behavior.
fable: A short moral tale, in verse or prose, in which human situations and behavior are depicted through (chiefly) beasts and birds, or gods or inanimate objects (Childs). Fables, on the other hand, represent the simplest way to illustrate a wisdom saying, proverb, dictum, commonplace, or aphorism. In fact, many proverbial sayings or expressions are either morals of fables or condensed allusions to them (“sour grapes,” “cried wolf,” “wolf in sheep’s clothing”) (Morson).
figure: (L: Figura, G: Schema) ancient rhetoric divided figures into figures of thought and figures of speech. Figures of thought were alterations in patterns or comparisons that brought about mental images. Figures of speech are those particularly related to the sound and sight of the word, such as rhyme, rhythm, assonance.
Ex: Figure of Thought: “All hands on deck.” (Synecdoche)
Figure of Speech: “Five miles meandering with a mazy motion” (Alliteration)
footnote: A textual apparatus that appears at the bottom of the page (or end of a work) to acknowledge the source of information, offer justification, proof, criticism, or any other number of reasons. The footnote, in its modern form, seems to have been devised in the seventeenth century, as part of an effort to counter skepticism about the possibility of attaining knowledge about the past and research about the future (Grafton).
fragment: Anything that is incomplete or part of a larger whole, either by design or time (degraded material). Ancient poetry often appears as material fragments, whereas apothegms and aphorisms appear as intentionally incomplete or underdetermined (meaning is perpetually delayed). Riddles can also be considered a fragment, where the completion of the riddle is the answer. In the nineteenth century (for Schlegel and Nietzsche, for example), the fragment became both a philosophical and literary exercise of inscribing completeness within the part.
gloss: (L “obsolete or foreign word”) Appeared in the middle ages as interlinear (or marginal) comment on or explanation of a word or phrase. Glossary appeared later as an alphabetical list of unfamiliar or difficult words and phrases, sometimes appended to the edition of a particular text (Cuddon).
gnome: cognate with gnosis, “knowledge.” A thought or sentence, similar to an apothegm or maxim. Ironically became gnomic in English—obscure, impenetrable, difficult, with even the connotation of unknowable—by way of Anglo-Saxon riddles and kennings (Hui).
graffiti: (little writing; scratching or scribbling) "ancient wall inscriptions found in the ruins of Pompeii" (etym.org).
haiku: A Japanese verse form consisting of seventeen syllables in three lines of five, seven and five syllables. Such a poem expresses a single idea, image or feeling; in fact, it is a kind of miniature ‘snap’ in words. It was first established as a form in the sixteenth century. Became popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the English-speaking world (Cuddon).
hieroglyph: (Gk ‘sacred carvings’) a figure (image) of a familiar object representing a word or sound, especially in the system of writing used on monuments. Hieroglyphs are types of ideograms and Egyptian hieroglyphs became popular in the European renaissance as the source of all knowledge, sacred, secret, and profane (Russell/Daly).
idiom: A form of expression, construction or phrase peculiar to a language and often possessing a meaning other than its grammatical or logical one (Cuddon).
Ex: Put on a brave face (English); ışıkları aç (Turkish).
incantation: see spell
jest: (L/F ‘gesta or geste’). Stories of a kind that were particularly popular in England and on the continent prior to the sixteenth century. Jest books were descendants of such collections of tales as the Gesta Romanorum (‘jest’derives from gesta or geste), volumes of moral anecdotes like the Alphabet of Tales and Speculum Laicorum, and theological handbooks like John Bromyard’s Summa Praedicantium (a kind of guide to easier preaching). Jests are often reminiscent of the medieval fabliau and for the most part are brief and didactic, humorous and satirical; sometimes they are ribald (Cuddon).
joke: (L iocus "joke, jest, sport, pastime") a thing that someone says to cause amusement or laughter, especially a story with a clever or unexpected ending. Jokes are related to or confused with witticisms, jests, puns, or other literary devices.
law: see maxim.
letter: see epistle
Lullaby: A soothing bed-time song or chant to send a child to sleep (Cuddon).
lyric: the lyric was originally a song set to the lyre, and later to other musical instruments (Childs). The lyric poem, usually short, was often constructed on a single mood. But the twentieth-century lyric is frequently more complex, allowing for contrastive themes and for changes, even ambivalences, of attitude, though remaining in an emotional rather than intellectual mode.
maxim: (L propositio maxima, ‘greatest theme’) A proposition, often barely distinguishable from an aphorism (q.v.) and closely related to a pensée, which consists of a pithy, succinct statement (usually a sentence or two, though it may run to more) which contains a precept or general truth about human nature and human conduct (Cuddon). In ancient times, maxims were identical with personal, religious, and social laws, commandments, or contracts. In modern times, similar to a dictum.
meme: an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. In 1976, introduced by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in "The Selfish Gene." It was coined by him from Greek sources, such as mimeisthai "to imitate" and mime “imitative actor, buffon” (https://www.etymonline.com).
motto: (L muttum, ‘murmur’) A short sentence or phrase (often in Latin) adopted as representative of a person or family. In such cases it may accompany a shield or coat of arms or other heraldic device (Cuddon). Mottos can be proverbs, dicta, maxims, or aphorisms.
Ex: Amor Vincit Omnia (love conquers all)—Motto of the Prioress from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (14th century)
observation: (F religious rite; to watch over, investigate) a remark in reference to that which is observed (seen or heard).
paradox: (G ‘contrary to expectations’) An apparently self-contradictory statement, though one which is essentially true (Childs). Originally a paradox was merely a view which contradicted accepted opinion and was used as a rhetorical device for public oration. In the late middle ages and renaissance, it acquired it’s now-common definition. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the study of paradox has taken hold in literary theory and continental philosophy as fundamental to meaning formation. Paradoxes can appear at the structural level of language and literature or the level of content.
Ex: This statement is false.
paraphrase: (Gk ‘tell in other words’) A version in other words of the sense of any passage or text. Basically, a translation (Cudden) that depends on the possibility of synonymy: can the same meaning be translated in an alternate form? Paraphrase is often used to translate the technical language of a discipline into the language of a non-expert. In literary theory, the paraphrase was criticized in the nineteenth and early twentieth century as impossible with literary works where the form is part of the content.
proverb: A short pithy saying which embodies a general truth. It is related in form and content to the maxim and the aphorism. Common to most nations and peoples, it is a form of expression of great antiquity (Cuddon).
Ex: There’s no place like home.
pun: (See Joke). a form of word play that exploits multiple meanings of a term, or of similar-sounding words, for an intended humorous or rhetorical effect (wikipedia).
QR Code: (Quick Response code) a machine readable optical code used to transmit information quickly between electronic devices. (wikipedia) (Add more).
quote: (F coten, “to mark (a book) with chapter numbers or marginal references”) The modern sense "to give as a reference, to cite as an authority" (1570s) or "to copy or repeat exact words" (1670s) has become a means of justifying a certain position with reference to other positions (https://www.etymonline.com). Quotes and quotations have become an essential part of both the academic research apparatus as well as literary production, where fragments (quotes) from other works are included to justify, emphasize, criticize, satirize, or parody.
Ex: T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1920)
S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.
The epigraph is quoted from Dante’s Inferno (Canto XXVII, lines 61-66):
riddle: The riddle is an aphoristic statement with a solution. The answer to a riddle solves it, but the interpretation of an aphorism or apothegm deepens its mystery. The riddle differs from the apothegm because the riddle has a solution (Morson).
Ex: What has four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening? –Riddle of the Sphynx
sentence: (L sententia, ‘feeling, opinion, judgement, thought’) Closely related to, if not actually synonymous with, the apophthegm, maxim and aphorism. A sententia is customarily a short, pithy statement which expresses an opinion as opposed to truth (Cuddon). In ancient Rome, sententia was the content of the very statement, the meaning.
short story: A prose narrative of indeterminate length, but too short to be published separately as novels or novellas. A short story is complete in its fragmentary status: it may be concerned with a scene, an episode, an experience, an action, the exhibition of a character or characters, the day’s events, a meeting, a conversation, or a fantasy. Short stories may be included in longer works (episodes) or be based on earlier iterations such as the myth, legend, parable, fairy tale, fable, anecdote, exemplum, or essay.
slogan: (OE battle cry) distinctive words or phrases used by political groups.
spell: incantation, which may consist of song, verse, or mere mumbo jumbo to invoke supernatural powers (Cuddon).
thesis: (GK “to put or place”) Three meanings may be distinguished: (a) a long essay or treatise that is presented for a degree; (b) a proposition to be proved; (c) the unstressed syllable of a metrical foot (e.g. thesis itself is a trochaic word on which the second syllable is unstressed).
thought (F pensée) a thought (or reflection) put in literary (written or printed) form. It is similar to the Roman sententia. It may be only a short sentence – like the average aphorism or maxim– or it may run to several pages. Many writers keep notebooks, diaries, journals, daybooks and other memoranda in which they jot down thoughts, but relatively few have chosen to make the pensée the main vehicle of publication (Cuddon).
title: (L titulus ‘inscription’) an inscription or heading, which often means “name of a book or written work.” Titles became important literary labels in the sixteenth century, and are closely related to captions, epigrams, quotations.
topos: (Gk: ‘location’) Topoi are familiar or repeated themes in rhetoric or literature. Translated into Latin as locus, which became locus communes, or “common places.” These are patterned thoughts, figures of speech that can be relied on in particular circumstances and employed for persuasive effect. They can be used as memory devices as an aid to invention. In literature, topoi, are repeated formal elements within literary works.
trope: (Gk ‘turn’) In general it denotes any rhetorical or figurative device used for speech, a metaphor. A trope is the uncommon use of a word or phrase of its effect. See Figure.
tweet: In 1845, the imitative of the sound made by a small bird. As of 2007, a single entry on the microblogging site, Twitter.com, which consists of 140 (280) characters.
Witticism: clever, wise, sagacious saying coined by John Dryden in the seventeenth century that combines ‘wit’ and ‘criticism.’ Witticism take on many forms, though particularly the epigram of the eighteenth century (etymonline.com and Cuddon).
General Secondary Sources on Terms:
Childs, Peter and Roger Fowler, Eds. The Routledge Dictionary of Literary Terms. New York: Routledge, 2006
A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Theory. ed. J. A. Cuddon. Oxford. Blackwell/Wiley, 2013.
Genre and Form Specific Secondary Sources:
Day, Joseph. 1989. "Rituals in Stone: Early Greek Grave Epigrams and Monuments." Journal of Hellenic Studies 109:22–27.
Grafton Anthony, The Footnote from De Thou to Ranke. History and Theory, Vol 33.N.4 1994, 53-76.
Gross, John. The Oxford Book of Aphorisms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Hui, Andrew. A Theory of the Aphorism: From Confucius to Twitter. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2019.
Hudson, Hoyt H. The Epigram in the English Renaissance. New York: Octagon Books, 1966
Morson, Gary Saul. “The Long and Short of It: From Aphorism to Novel.” Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012.
---The Aphorism: Fragments from the Breakdown of Reason. New Literary History, Vol. 34, No. 3, Theorizing Genres II (Summer, 2003), pp.409-429.
Nisbet, Gideon. Greek Epigram in the Roman Empire: Martial’s Forgotten Rivals. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. 2003.
Nixon, Paul. Martial and the Modern Epigram. New York: Cooper Square. 1963.
Ragin, Charles C. and Becker, Howard S. Eds. What is a Case? Exploring the Foundations of Social Inquiry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Media Secondary Sources:
Abbate, J. Inventing the Internet. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999
Baron, Dennis. 2009. A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press.
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida
———. 1985b. “From Speech to Writing.” In The Grain of the Voice: Interviews, 1962-1980, tran. Linda Coverdale, 3–7. New York: Hill and Wang.
Benjamin, Walter. 1969. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Tran. Harry Zohn. first Schocken paperback edition. Schocken.
Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory, Cambridge , MA , Zone Books, 1990, Introduction and Ch. 1-2, pp. vii-169.
Boyne, Roy. 2006. “Classification.” Theory, Culture & Society 23 (2-3) (May 1): 21 –30. doi:10.1177/0263276406062529.
Carr, Nicholas, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (W. W. Norton, 2008)
Cavell, Richard. 2003. McLuhan in Space: A Cultural Geography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Cavell, Richard. 2010. “McLuhan and the Humanities.” ESC 36 (2-3) (September): 14–18.
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Derrida, Jacques. Paper Machine. Trans. Rachel Bowldy. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Gitelman, Lisa. 1999. Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era. Stanford University Press.
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Huhtamo, Erkki. Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.
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———. 1990. Discourse Networks 1800/1900. Trans. Michael Metteer, with Chris Cullens. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
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Ong, Walter. “Writing Restructures Consciousness,” from Orality and Literacy
Parikka, Jussi. What is Media Archeology? Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012.