Personification vs. Anthropomorphism

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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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5 thoughts on “Personification vs. Anthropomorphism”

  1. What about the episode of South Park where Oprah’s Vagina and Butthole conspire? They just talk mostly, so I thought that was personification. But then Oprah’s Vagina pulls a gun out and initiates a hostage situation. Is that a transition into anthropomorphism? Or were they anthropomorphized the whole time?

  2. LOL Philbuster..too funny!! Gotta love south park. I don’t know if it is poor etiquette to post from another site but I found this explanation from wisegeek.com helpful.

    “The difference between anthropomorphism and personification is a subtle one, as each term refers to a similar assignment of human characteristics to a non-human entity. Anthropomorphism is a literary device that an author uses to give traditionally human feelings or actions to an animal, plant, or inanimate object. The Easter Bunny is an example of anthropomorphism, as an animal becomes a total embodiment of human characteristics and abilities. Personification works similarly and occurs when the writer allows a non-human entity to fully embody human traits. For example, the sentence, “The wind blew angrily, expressing the full extent of his violent rage,” applies this concept, because the wind retains its non-human form while taking on human emotions, intentions, and a masculine pronoun.”

  3. I would say personification is turning something into literally a person (a human) where anthropomorphism is giving human characteristics to something that is not a person.

    An interesting example might be the character of Death. In Terry Pratchett’s Discword universe he’s anthropomorphized as a tall skeleton wearing black with a scythe. He was never human so you wouldn’t say he’s “personified”. He has a lot of human characteristics but is clearly not and never was a “person” — he is literally Death, a force of nature and part of the universe, but also an entertaining conversationalist who likes to ride a horse for the look of the thing. By contrast, in Piers Anthony’s “Incarnations of Immortality” series, Death is personified by a person who takes up the job. He is the personification of death — literally a person doing a particular job — not an anthropomorphization.

  4. Personification is to make a person out of an idea or concept. Stalin is the personification of evil. You are defining evil as the person Stalin. The grim reaper is the personification of death. Death is represented by the humanoid figure we know as The Grim Reaper.

    Anthropomophism is to project human feelings or traits onto animals or inanimate objects. The cartoons of Tom and Jerry consist mainly of anthopomophic characters. A cat and mouse behaving like humans, of which they certainly cannot. Fantasia is another good example.

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