Allusion is a reference to a familiar literary or historical person or event, used to make an idea more easily understood. An allusion is distinguished from such devices as direct quote and imitation or parody. Most allusions are based on the assumption that there is a body of knowledge that is shared by the author and the reader and that therefore the reader will understand the author’s referent. Allusions to biblical figures and figures from classical mythology are common in Western literature for this reason. However, some authors, such as T.S. Eliot and James Joyce, deliberately use obscure and complex allusions that they know few people would understand. The word is from the late Latin allusio meaning “a play on words” or “game” and is a derivative of the Latin word alludere, meaning “to play around” or “to refer to mockingly.”

Distinguish "allusion" ,"illusion", "elusion" and "elution"

An allusion is an indirect reference.
An elusion is a deception or clever evasion.
Elution is a word used in chemistry that means to remove by dissolving.
An illusion is something unreal.

Sources of Allusion

1.Fairy tales, myths, legends, fables
2.The Bible
3.English & American literary works
4.Modern & contemporary sources
5.Historical figures

Examples of Allusion

  • Describe someone as "Romeo"--Romeo and Juliet

  • She was another Helen--Helen of Troy

Apple of discord

a golden apple thrown into a banquet of the gods by Eris (goddess of discord, Strife--who had not been invited); the apple had `for the fairest' written on it and Hera and Athena and Aphrodite all claimed it; when Paris (prince of Troy) awarded it to Aphrodite it began a chain of events that led to the Trojan War.

Achilles heels

A fatal weakness, a vulnerable area, as in "This division, which is rarely profitable, is the company's Achilles' heel."
The term alludes to the Greek legend about the heroic warrior Achilles whose mother tried to make him immortal by holding the infant by his heel and dipping him into the River Styx. Eventually he was killed by an arrow shot into his undipped heel.

Open sesame

a story from the Arabian Nights.
Ali Baba gains the treasure of the thieves, which they keep in a cave with a magical entrance. Ali Baba opens the door of the thieves' cave with the magical password “Open, sesame.”
a children's television series composed solely of the skits and segments of the legendary American television series Sesame Street.

kill the fatted calf

Prepare for a joyful occasion or a warm welcome.
When Bill comes home from his trip to Korea we're going to kill the fatted calf.
the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), whose father welcomed him by serving the choicest calf after his return.

The writing on the wall

sometimes 'handwriting on the wall‘
a portent of doom or misfortune.
It originates in the Biblical book of Daniel—where supernatural writing fortells the demise of the Babylonian Empire, but it has come to have a wide usage in language and literature.

15 minutes of fame

Andy Warhol, a 20th-century American artist most famous for his pop-art images of Campbell soupcans and o fMarilyn Monroe, commented about the explosion of media coverage by saying, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes."
Today, when someone receives a great deal of media attention for something fairly trivial, and he or she is said to be experiencing his or her “15 minutes of fame”, the allusion is to Andy Warhol's famous saying.


This phrase comes from a novel by Joseph Heller. Catch-22 is set on a U.S. Army Air Force base in World War II. “Catch-22” refers to a regulation that states an airman’s request to be relieved from flight duty can only be granted if he is judged to be insane. However, anyone who does not want to fly dangerous missions is obviously sane, thus, there is no way to avoid flying the missions.
Later in the book the old woman in Rome explains that Catch-22 means "They can do whatever they want to do." This refers to the theme of the novel in which the authority figures consistently abuse their powers, leaving the consequences to those under their command.
In common speech, “catch-22” has come to describe any absurd or no-win situation.

T. S. Eliot and James Joyce

The poetry of T. S. Eliot is often described as "allusive", because of his habit of referring to names, places or images that may only make sense in the light of prior knowledge. This technique can add to the experience, but for the uninitiated can make Eliot's work seem dense and hard to decipher.
The most densely allusive work in modern English is Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. Joseph Campbell, Henry Morton Robinson and Edmund L. Epstein provided A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake(1944) that unlocked some of Joyce's most obscure allusions.

An Allusion to John Kennedy's Inaugural Address

  • "Senator Obama's call to 'ask not just what our government can do for us, but what we can do for ourselves' had an even more direct connection to the inaugural address of the first G.I. Generation president of the United States."
    (Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais, Millennial Makeover. Rutgers Univ. Press, 2008)


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