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9.17.2006

WOTD: Deus ex machina

Deus ex machina is a Latin phrase that is used to describe an unexpected, artificial, or improbable character, device, or event introduced suddenly in a work of fiction or drama to resolve a situation or untangle a plot (e.g., having the protagonist wake up and realize it was all a dream or an angel suddenly appear to solve all the plot problems of a story that won't resolve itself by the characters). The phrase has been extended to refer to any resolution to a story which does not pay due regard to the story's internal logic and is so unlikely that it challenges suspension of disbelief, allowing the author to conclude the story with an unlikely, though more palatable, ending. In modern terms the deus ex machina has also come to describe a person or thing that suddenly arrives and solves a seemingly insoluble difficulty. While in storytelling this might seem unfulfilling, in real life this type of figure might be welcome and heroic.

The notion of deus ex machina can also be applied to a revelation within a story experienced by a character which involves the individual realizing that the complicated, sometimes perilous or mundane and perhaps seemingly unrelated sequence of events leading up to this point in the story are joined together by some profound concept. Thus the unexpected and timely intervention is aimed at the meaning of the story rather than a physical event in the plot.

The Greek tragedian Euripides is notorious for using this plot device.

The Latin phrase (deus ex māchinā, plural deī ex māchinīs) is a calque from the Greek ἀπὸ μηχανῆς θεός ápo mēchanēs theós, (pronounced in Ancient Greek [a po' mɛ:kʰa'nɛ:s tʰe'os]). It originated with Greek and Roman theater, when a mechane would lower actors playing a god or gods on stage to resolve a hopeless situation. The phrase is often translated as "god from the machine", where the machine referred to is the crane device employed in the task.

The pronunciation of the phrase may be a problem in English. The Latin phrase would originally have been pronounced something like ['de.ʊs eks 'ma:kʰɪ.na:], in other words with machina stressed on the first syllable, and with the ch pronounced as in the Scottish word "loch" — similar to an English k — but English-speaking people may be influenced by the modern English machine ([mə'ʃi:n]), resulting in a mixed pronunciation. Some English speakers face further difficulties in pronouncing the e in Deus [e], which is only approximately rendered as [AY] and is much closer to the ay in day. See also Latin spelling and pronunciation.

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