Definition of ‘Ekphrasis’

If the dialectic of word and image is central to the study of media, then the term ekphrasis (alternatively spelled ecphrasis) must also be a crucial part of understanding media as the intersection of verbal and visual. Few pieces of media jargon have as long a history or as considerable an evolution as ekphrasis. The conflict of word and image in media can be better understood by tracing the history and evolution of ekphrasis, which embodies the practice of both elements. 

The word has undergone such change, in terms of definition and usage, that even the Oxford English Dictionary provides little information. Ekphrasis has taken on such specialized meanings over the ages that the only way to pin down even a cursory understanding of the word requires knowledge both ancient and modern. The Oxford English Dictionary does provide a definition, from 1715, for ‘ecphrasis’ as “a plain declaration or interpretation of a thing.” The second reference, from 1814, is similarly abrupt indicating some shift in meaning over the course of about a hundred years when ekphrasis is characterized by “florid effeminacies of style.” While not inaccurate, this definition is hardly recognizable against the panoply of meanings ekphrasis has covered and continues to cover in debate today. More usefully, the Oxford English dictionary does break down the etymology where ‘ek’ means ‘out’ and ‘phrasis’ means ‘to speak.’ ‘Out to speak’ or ‘to speak out,’ the word takes its original meaning from ancient Greece. [1] 



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