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Alluding to illusions …

Emmy host Jimmy Fallon … made a sly illusion to Conan O’Brien’s firing as host of “The Tonight Show”.
CNN transcripts, August 2010 (taken from the Oxford English Corpus).

As the above incorrect usage shows, among many troublesome twosomes in the English language are illusion and allusion. It doesn’t help that their pronunciations are similar, unless one purposefully enunciates il-lusion and uh-lusion. Similarities in sound notwithstanding, the two words are quite distinct in meaning.

Deceptive perceptions

The main meaning of illusion is something that is wrongly perceived by your senses:

The ghostlike figure was an illusion, created by special lighting and mirrors.

It can also mean a deceptive appearance or impression:

The illusion of solvency crumbled when they filed for bankruptcy.

or a false idea or belief:

I was under the illusion that things were getting better.

Let’s go back to the beginning

Both illusion and allusion have Latin roots that help to clarify their meanings. While illusion is derived from the Latin verb illudere (‘to mock,’ later ‘to deceive’), allusion comes from alludere (‘to hint at or suggest’).

An allusion is thus an indirect reference, an expression that calls something to mind without mentioning it explicitly:

There are allusions to Shakespeare in most of Dostoevsky’s novels and stories.

The related verb form is allude:

Georgette’s name may allude to the 1918 German offensive (Operation Georgette) in Belgium.

A cornucopia of allusions

As figures of speech, allusions have counterparts in historical, biblical, mythological, literary, or contemporary contexts. Many are so familiar that we no longer consciously think of them as allusions. Even if we do, we may not be certain about who or what we are alluding to.

Robert Louis Stevenson Jekyll and HydeAllusions’ original meanings make sense of why we use them. You might dislike a co-worker for his Jekyll and Hyde personality, but until you learn about the dual character created by Robert Louis Stevenson, you cannot fully appreciate the allusion. We’re all pretty sure that Armageddon is not where we’d go on vacation, but when we read the New Testament book Revelation, we are more than just a little certain!

Allusions often speak of cultural imprints left by a previous generation—or, alas, my own generation. Older folks should never skimp on allusions when speaking with younger people. Allusions inspire questions: What’s a catch-22? Where is Motown? Next time you’re conversing with people much younger (or older) than you, throw some categories up for discussion and see which cultural epitomes emerge. If the category is “Exploration” and you say “Neil Armstrong” and your granddaughter says “Dora,” you may each have some allusive explaining to do!

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