Allusion: A Specific Reference

allusion to Dorian Gray

Allude? Allusion? Do you know how to use these words?

You’ve probably heard someone say something like this:

Was he alluding to what happened at the meeting yesterday?


I’m alluding to your comments about the restructure.

We know what’s meant, but it’s not the accurate way to use the word ‘allude’.

In these sentences, the better word  would have been ‘referring’.

What does ‘refer’ mean?

To refer to’ means to mention or draw attention to something that has already been done or said:

Could I ask you to refer to the footnotes on the document?

The noun is reference:

He made a reference to my earlier remarks.

Its meaning is the same in the job seeking/recruitment world. You might refer people (bring their names forward) for positions or as clients. The reference you give someone is a reminder or highlight of the person’s qualities and achievements.

You would not use allude or allusion in these sentences.

What do ‘allude’ and ‘allusion’ mean?

‘To allude to’ also means to make a reference, but with a more specific focus.

It involves mentioning or drawing attention to a well-known figure, expression or idea from literature, history, legend, religion or popular culture:

In his speech, he alluded to the Labours of Hercules.

The word often appears in its noun form, ‘allusion’:

There are benefits and problems; her allusion to Superman was apt.

In the above sentences, ‘alluded ‘and ‘allusion’ could be replaced with ‘referred’ and ‘reference’.

[NB: Don’t confuse ‘allusion’ with ‘illusion’; that’s a story for another day.]

How to use an allusion

Most often, allusions are used without mentioning the word ‘allusion’; in other words, they’re not explained. There’s an assumption the audience will understand the reference:

In his speech he talked about the Herculean tasks the Government faced.

He might be able to bend steel in his bare hands but his Kryptonite is the pressure of union demands.

Many allusions have become part of everyday speech:

He’s your typical Romeo/Casanova/Adonis/Cupid….

Wake up, Sleeping Beauty.

They were facing their Waterloo.

Beware, though, of those that have become clichés.

Two things you should know

  • Sometimes people use an allusion that remains a mystery to their audience. It’s not a good idea. It’s a little like using jargon: make sure, as far as possible, your target audience will get it and not feel excluded. Obscure allusions will make you seem like a smart-alec and have your audience scratching their heads
  • Follow the same rule as for metaphors. Don’t mix your allusions:

    In business he had the Midas touch but in his personal life, his Achilles’ heel was his Dorian Gray complex.

Try unravelling that one!

See more ways to Be Word Wise.

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