The Friday Fillip: Figures of Speech

It irks me a little each time I hear someone announce that this or that phrase is an oxymoron — “efficient government,” for example, or “civil service”. It’s the prescriptivist in me, of course, wanting to say that what they almost always mean is a “contradiction in terms,” because an “oxymoron” is a deliberately conceived figure of speech and not an accidental collision. But let’s face it, nowadays that stuff is all Greek to most of us, and “oxymoron” in the strict sense is the day before yesterday, along with the nearly 160 other technical terms used to describe the variety of rhetorical moves you might make in speechifying. Wikipedia has them all listed, for those with a hankering for temps passé, each hyperlinked to a page of its own. (There’s also a very handy chart by an English prof at Nipissing University.)

But though the labels may be Studebakers and 8-tracks, we still make the same rhetorical moves today that might have been heard in the agora, whether or not we know their names. (In this we’re the true children of Molière’s Monsieur Jordain, who spoke “prose” without realizing it.) So I thought we’d skim over a few of these ancient names for a fond glance backwards — and besides, some of them are words it’s fun to say — like oxymoron.

Or synechdoche, which is pronounced enough like Schenectady to give rise to the occasional burst of donnish humour. What was it, you ask? It is a “form of metonymy, in which a part stands for the whole.” Calling my car my “wheels” would be synechdoche (and appropriately dated, perhaps). Metonymy, the larger term, is the “substitution of an associated word to suggest what is really meant.” Using “Harper” to mean the federal government would be an example.

Then there are the truly obscure terms: procatalepsis (refuting anticipated objections), syncatabasis (altering style to accommodate the level of the audience), zeugma (two or more parts of a sentence joined with a single common verb or noun: “You held your breath and the door for me.”), or hendiatris (using three nouns to express one idea: “wine, women and song”).

But in addition to the obscure there are also irony, innuendo, metaphor, alliteration, repetition, onomatopoeia, and hyperbole, all still in service when we talk about talking, as we often do.

You might want to see these animals in action. In which case I suggest you take a look at Pythonisms, a page on the website Figures of Speech Served Fresh, in which Jay Heinrichs tags the figures to be found in a typical patch of Monty Python prose (and offers you more besides, if you click around the site). After this, you’ll be ready to try it at home, I’m sure, on whatever speech your spouse floats your way. Good fun for the whole family. (Irony? Sarcasm? or just antiphrasis?)

And that’s it for this Friday. No paraprosdokian.

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