Allusion: I Understood That Reference!


The group walked into their classroom as if it were Mordor.

“Do you think we’ll be in the same group at least?”

“If we’re going off pure odds, there’s a 30% chance, but if she used a different means, that would bring it down to somewhere between 12-18%, -”

“I think he wanted reassurance, not data.”

“Oh. Absolutely, Kevin. We’ll all be in the same group.”

“Thanks, Spock.” Kevin said sarcastically. He laid his head on his desk. This project was going to be a disaster of Titanic proportions.


Did you catch the allusions to Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, or the sinking of the Titanic? By mentioning these places, people, and events, the audience is given a clear picture of the current story.


An allusion is simply a reference. It’s almost always an indirect reference but it can be direct. The important element of an allusion is that it acts as a passing comment - what is being referenced is never fully described. 

The History

Though the modern term wasn’t documented until the mid-16th century, “allusion” evolved from 4th century Latin “allūdere,” which means “to play or jest” and also “to refer to.” Early on, allusion had other definitions - an allusion could be a pun or even any symbolic likening. Those definitions became obsolete though in favor of the modern one - a reference to a different person, place, or thing.

Applying It

Allusions are great for getting across ideas in a short span of space and time. By referencing something in a few words, you get your audience to associate an already established character, place, or event with your own. 

Allusions don’t have to be referencing famous people or events. They can be the “in-jokes” of a group - provided they aren’t fully explained when mentioned. 

The drawback to allusions though is that you’re making the assumption that your audience knows the work you’re referencing. This isn’t always the case. Even with the most popular works, someone is bound to be unfamiliar with the source material. Since allusions don’t fully explain what they’re referencing, they run the risk of leaving certain audience members out of the loop.

Allusions can be used to great comedic or dramatic effect - you just need to be sure your audience will understand the reference.

Think Further

  1. What are some popular works that are often alluded to?
  2. Find your favorite piece of writing. What allusions does it contain? How do these allusions shape the writing?
  3. When and where do you encounter allusions?


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Learn More

  1. Glucksberg, Sam. “Beyond Literal Meanings: The Psychology of Allusion.” Psychological Science, vol 2, issue 3, 1991, pp 146-152. Doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.1991.tb00122.x.
  2. Irwin, William. “What Is an Allusion?” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol 59, issue 3, Summer 2001, pp 287-297.
  3. Machacek, Gregory. “Allusion.” PMLA, vol 122, no 2, Mar 2007, pp 522-536. Doi: 10.1632/pmla.2007.122.2.522. ISSN:0030-8129.