Personification vs. Anthropomorphism
A reader asks:
Is there a difference between Personification and Anthropomorphism? If they’re not the same, could you please explain it?
Both words convey the idea of attributing human characteristics to something not human.
Personification comes from the verb personify.
One meaning of personify is “to represent or imagine a thing or abstraction as a person.” For example, “Wisdom has built her house; she has set up its seven pillars. –Proverbs, 9:1.” The abstract concept wisdom is personified by the use of the feminine pronouns.
Another meaning of personify is “to be the embodiment of a quality or trait.” For example, “Adolf Hitler has become infamous as a personification of evil.”
Poets frequently employ personification, as in the opening lines of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats (1795–1821):
Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Sylvan historian, who canst’ thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme.
The subject of the poem is an ancient urn or vase depicting a pastoral scene in which male figures seem to be pursuing women. Keats humanizes the inanimate urn by addressing it with the pronoun thou and calling it a bride, a foster-child, and a historian. The concepts Silence and Time are also personified by identifying them as the parents of the urn.
Many of the ancient gods were personifications of natural phenomena or intellectual concepts. The goddess Iris, for example, is the personification of the rainbow. Cupid is the personification of desire or love (Latin cupere, “to love”).
English speakers personify ships as female, as Holmes does in his poem about the USS Constitution, aka “Old Ironsides”:
Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!
The word anthropomorphism has two main applications.
The first definition given for it in the OED is “ascription of a human form and attributes to the Deity.” Descriptions of God walking in a garden, having the whole world in His hands and “having His eye upon the sparrow” are examples of this kind of anthropomorphism.
A second definition of anthropomorphism is “ascription of a human attribute or personality to anything impersonal or irrational.” This is the kind of anthropomorphism that leads doting pet owners to stage weddings for their dogs.
Anthropomorphism is a popular story-telling trope. Puss in Boots, Black Beauty, and Rocket Raccoon are anthropomorphized animal characters.
Inanimate objects can also be anthropomorphized, like the vegetables in Veggie Tales and the vehicles in the movie Cars. Television advertising is rife with anthropomorphism, ranging from cute (M&M candies) to revolting (Mucus).
If there is a difference, it’s a subtle one. I think personification is more appropriate for discussions of literature and as a synonym for embodiment. Anthropomorphism seems to suit more general contexts. One drawback to this advice is that anthropomorphism is harder to say.
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