AskDefine | Define excursus

Dictionary Definition

excursus n : a message that departs from the main subject [syn: digression, aside, divagation, parenthesis]

User Contributed Dictionary



From excursus ‘excursion’.




  1. A fuller treatment (in a separate section) of a particular part of the text of a book, especially a classic.
  2. A narrative digression, especially to discuss a particular issue.
    • 1979, Kyril Bonfiglioli, After You with the Pistol, Penguin 2001, p. 204:
      Here is what us scholars call an excursus. If you are an honest man the following page or two can be of no possible interest to you.
    • 2007, Glen Bowersock, ‘Provocateur’, London Review of Books 29:4, p. 16:
      In his excursus on the Jewish people at the opening of the fifth book of his Histories [...], Tacitus was at a loss to uncover any deep cause for the war that broke out in 66.

Extensive Definition

An excursus (from Latin excurrere, "to run out of") is a short episode or anecdote in a work of literature. Often excursuses have nothing to do with the matter being discussed by the work, and are used to lighten the atmosphere in a tragic story, similar to the role of satyr plays in Greek theatre. Sometimes they are used to provide backstory to the matter being discussed at hand, as in Pseudo-Apollodorus' Bibliotheke.

Etymologies as excursuses

Sometimes detailed or fanciful etymologies are used as excursuses. This was used as early as the 5th Century BC by the poet Pindar. The most famous case of etymologies being used as excursuses is in The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, in which the life of each saint is proceeded by an etymology about the origin of the saint's name.
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