What does ekphrasis mean?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: ekphrasis.

When I saw the noun ekphrasis, I had no idea what it meant. But by the sound of it, I knew it was Greek.

I encountered it in a New Yorker review of Donna Tartt’s bestselling book The Goldfinch Headlined “The New Curiosity Shop,” and written by James Wood, the review claimed….

It occasions some of the deeper writing in the book, as Tartt slows from her adventurous storytelling to the eventless calm of ekphrasis, and describes the mournful splendor of Fabritius’s own painterly patience. 

I didn’t find much of Tartt’s novel terribly deep (it struck me more as a type of thriller with unrealized literary leanings) but I was interested in the painting on which it was based, shown above. Created by Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) and contained in New York city’s Frick Collection, the painting gave writer Donna Tartt a reason to offer  her own a literary description of a visual piece of art. This act is known as ekphrasis. 

The origin of the word is from the Greek ekphrazein, meaning to recount or describe. This comes from ex- meaning “out,” and phrazein meaning to point out or explain. Its first known use dates to 1715.

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