Monthly Archives: August, 2013

Fancy footwork

ChurchillPara what Stephen Colbert

The figure of speech known as the paraprosdokian hasn’t received the recognition it deserves. It’s every bit as delightful as the oxymoron, the malapropism and the mondegreen.

For the uninitiated, a paraprosdokian comes from the Greek words ‘para (‘against’) and ‘prosdokia’ (‘expectation’). It occurs when the second half of a sentence or phrase catches the reader or listener by surprise, in the process reframing the first half. And this is mostly used for comic effect.

Churchill was a master at it, whether on the subject of Stafford Cripps (“There but for the grace of God — goes God”), Clement Atlee (“A sheep in sheep’s clothing”) or the United States (“You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing—after they have tried everything else”).

But the great Winnie isn’t alone in his mastery of such fancy footwork. On the subject of pedal extremities, as far back as Aristotle there was a neat bit of paraprosdokian tap-dancing. The great philosopher and all-round polymath is reputed to have said “On his feet he wore… blisters.”

In modern times, there have been several paraprosdokian geniuses, such as the late Mitch Hedberg (“I haven’t slept for ten days, because that would be too long”), HH Munro, better known as Saki (“She was good as cooks go, and as cooks go she went”) and the late great Bill Hicks (“I sleep eight hours a day and at least ten at night”). However I can’t think of a better troupe of surprise verbal twisters than the Marx Brothers, especially Groucho (“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it”).

For my money, the best living exponent of the paraprosdokian is Stephen Colbert. This man is always just one on-camera crack-up away from letting his shock-jock right-wing parody slip. He dances around the paraprosdokian whether he’s sending up his TV anchor persona  (“If I am reading this graph correctly — I’d be very surprised”), subverting a cliché (“Don’t cry over spilled milk. By this time tomorrow, it’ll be free yoghurt”), subverting a platitude (“Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Give a man a sub-prime fish loan and you’re in business, buddy”), having a dig at Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News (“I give people the truth, unfiltered by rational argument. I call it the ‘No Fact Zone’ ”) or having a go at triumphal USA ignorance (“Who’s Britannica to tell me that the Panama Canal was built in 1914? If I want to say that it was built in 1941, that’s my right as an American”). That’s fancy footwork.


Stirring the alphabet soup

Alphabet soupFear of change

I love these twenty-six words.

None of them is a new coinage or a buzzword. For this reason alone, they’re not likely to find their way into management-speak. Unless you want to subvert the system.

You can use these bon mots in most organisational settings. Admittedly, they aren’t easy to drop into the context of a meeting. They’re harder to bring into casual conversation. But if ever you can introduce them, these gems will sparkle and shine. So what if people look askance at you? Such lexical goodies can make the moment memorable. Also, watch that minute-taker pause. Such words mostly defy the spell-check function of software, as they defy most people’s lexical limits.

And they sound so good. They crunch, crackle, fizz and pop. I can’t claim to have used them all yet but I’m working on it.

  1. Absquatulate – to leave or abscond with something
  2. Bloviate – to speak pompously or to brag
  3. Calumniate – to slander, misrepresent or besmirch
  4. Discombobulate – to confuse
  5. Eccedentesiast – one who fakes a smile
  6. Formication – the sense of ants crawling on your skin
  7. Gastromancy – telling one’s fortune from rumblings of the stomach
  8. Hadeharia – the practice of constantly using the word ‘Hell’ in one’s speech
  9. Inaniloquent –  saying foolish things
  10. Janiform – having two faces
  11. Kainotophobia – fear of change
  12. Lalochezia – the use of foul or abusive language to relieve strain or pain
  13. Mumpsimus – one who sticks obstinately to their old and incorrect ways
  14. Nudiustertian – pertaining to the day before yesterday
  15. Oocephalus – an egghead
  16. Preantepenultimate – fourth from last
  17. Quidnunc – one who always wants to know what’s going on
  18. Recumbentibus – a knockout blow, either verbal or physical
  19. Snollygoster – a person who can’t be trusted
  20. Trichotillomania – neurosis where patient pulls out own hair
  21. Unconsentaneous– not in agreement
  22. Ventripotent – big-bellied and gluttonous
  23. Witticaster – a petty or inferior wit
  24. Xenobombulate – to malinger
  25. Yarborough – hand of cards containing no card above nine
  26. Zenzizenzizenzic – a number raised to the eighth power

Almost but not quite the same


When is a synonym almost a synonym? When it’s a near-ism.

Does it bother you when people refer to the Irish as British or to Canadians as Americans? In cartographic terms, Mexicans and Argentinians are also Americans. Does it bother you if someone writes ‘Here, here’ when they mean ‘Hear, hear’? Sometimes these are just errors. Sometimes the writer has misapplied language logic, as in ‘just desserts’ or ‘one foul swoop’. But occasionally there are fine distinctions in our magnificent-irritating language, where the difference between words is no more than a hair’s (rather than a hare’s) breath.

1. Just how much does a dolphin differ from a porpoise?

They’re both marine mammals, and relatives of the whale. Dolphins are more prevalent than porpoises, with thirty-two dolphin species compared to six porpoise species. The difference is evident in their fishy faces, their fins and their figures. The dolphin tends to have a prominent and elongated ‘beak’ and cone-shaped teeth; porpoises have smaller mouths and spade-shaped teeth. The dolphin has a hooked or curved dorsal fin, differing from the porpoise’s triangular dorsal fin. Dolphin bodies are leaner, porpoises more portly. Dolphins are also noisier. They whistle sounds through their blowholes to communicate with one another underwater. Porpoises don’t. Both mammals are very intelligent, with large, complex brains and a structure in their foreheads that they use to generate a kind of sonar to navigate underwater. But none of these differences are obvious to the untrained eye. So for those of us who aren’t marine zoologists, it can seem like a fine–even a negligible–distinction.

2. How is envy different from jealousy?

To envy is to bear a grudge toward someone, coveting what that person has or enjoys. It’s the only one of the Seven Deadly Sins that’s also a no-go area of the Ten Commandments. In less biblical terms, to envy is to long for something someone else has without any ill will intended toward that person. It’s the emotion of wanting to possess something that someone else has. By contrast, to be jealous is to feel apprehensive or vengeful out of fear of being replaced by someone else. A far more dysfunctional emotion than envy, it can mean behaviour that is watchful, suspicious, obsessed or thwarted from the expectation of utter devotion. To be jealous is to fear being replaced in the affections of another. You can be envious without being jealous but you can’t be jealous without the involvement of a third party, even if they haven’t yet appeared. Not quite dolphins and porpoises, but close.

3. How does a hurricane differ from a cyclone?

It doesn’t. Hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons are the same weather phenomenon; they just occur in different places. In the Atlantic and Northeast Pacific, ‘hurricane’ is used. The same extreme meteorological disturbance in the Northwest Pacific is called a ‘typhoon’. ‘Cyclones’ occur in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean. Dolphin equals porpoise.

4. How is reluctance different from reticence?

Somebody may be reticent about sharing bad news with you. They can also be reluctant. Isn’t it much the same thing? To be reluctant is to resist or to be unwilling. So is being reticent. For example, compare ‘the government is reluctant to privatise certain public utilities’ to ‘Facebook is reticent about embracing ads from political parties’. Is ‘reticent’ truly softer? An introvert is reticent about making small-talk, while a pathologically shy person is reluctant. Hardly a helpful distinction. Both words mean unwilling, and often they’re interchangeable. Dolphin equals porpoise.

5. How does Scotch differ from whisky?

The easy distinction is to say that all Scotch is whisky but not all whisky is Scotch. An alcoholic beverage, whisky is distilled primarily from grain. In Scotland this grain is malted barley; in the USA it’s corn or rye. The difference in serving and ordering is also one of custom. In Britain, to order a whisky and soda means to be served Scotch and soda. By contrast, in the USA, you would ask for a Scotch and soda rather than combine soda with a rye whisky. This distinction is a little like the game of football in Britain (and dozens of other countries), which is called ‘soccer’ in the USA and Australia. And in Ireland, you would order your Jameson or Tullamore Dew or Bushmills and spell it ‘whiskey’.  Even more confusingly, Jack Daniels is known as ‘Tennessee whiskey,’ not made in the same way as Bourbon (which is supposed to be sold as ‘sour mash’ if distilled outside Kentucky), and rye whisky is different again, distilled from at least fifty-one percent rye or Canadian whisky but may include no rye in its production process. Dolphin? Porpoise? There’s lots of good marine mammals in the sea.

Am I Really Offended?

Im offended

‘Oh, get over yourself,’ I wanted to say.

That poor bastard: it was never going to be a good night for him. Clearly on a first date, the stocky man with the extreme sideburns was—in boxer’s parlance—punching above his weight by dining with the tall blonde companion. Seated at an adjacent table in a restaurant, my wife and I had paid little attention to this couple until the fellow started raising his voice at something his dining partner said.

‘I’m offended by that,’ Mr Sideburns declared with some force, shutting down the conversation, and in the process cutting short the dinner date. They paid the bill and left shortly afterwards. Poor bastard: and yet he might have believed all the way home to his lonely existence that he was the injured party.

Why did he claim to be offended? I’ll never know. Perhaps his companion made some joke about his facial hair. Perhaps he might have had genuine cause for complaint. Unfortunately his reaction suggested a short temper, so perhaps the tall blonde dodged a relationship bullet that night.

Of late I’ve been hearing people—in the flesh and on screen—taking offence for matters outside their own sphere. I’ve heard them say they’re offended by cultural stereotypes, by the conduct of the government and by the statements of this or that public figure.

Are they really offended? This is sloppy use of the English language. Isn’t this so-called offence akin to misplaced martyrdom or just a fancy way to whinge?

What would make someone feel this need to say he or she is offended when the offence lies outside their personal zone? Perhaps that person is an ambassador for a nation-state. Perhaps he or she is a spokesperson for a marginalised group.

I can understand an advocate for women’s rights stating that one of her constituents could find a particular advertisement, role depiction or terminology offensive to womankind. That’s not just sisterhood; it’s professional advocacy.

I can understand someone from a particular ethnic or religious or cultural background taking offence on behalf of his or her community. That’s solidarity.

But I’m talking about the personal affront on behalf of others beyond our own sphere of influence. Isn’t this just a whining assumption that fate owes them an explanation?

For example, the person offended on behalf of a section of the community he or she doesn’t belong to: smokers, refugees, gun-owners, parents, dog-owners, women, men, youth, old people, breast-feeders, vegetarians, or anyone at all. Who gave that person permission to be offended? Nobody.

If someone makes a spiteful comment about a physical attribute of mine—such as weight, height, hair, clothes—I can choose to take offence. In which case, I can do something about it.

And even if I’m not the inadvertent object of insult, I can campaign for justice in a small way, by trying to educate the insulter. That’s how social change happens.

Yet to do no more than say ‘I’m offended’ is a victim’s reaction. It’s a whine. It’s playing martyr to someone else’s cause. Let’s not abuse the English language in this way. I’m not offended; I’m indignant. I’m concerned or aggrieved or angry. It’s someone else who has been offended. Taking offence on behalf of others is illogical. It’s a bucket of paint I choose to splash all over myself. You didn’t fling it at me.

Rather than whining about how I’m offended by some label or pejorative term or unjust accusation, I can respond. I can take objection and do something about it.

When we hear lies and insults and misrepresentation, we should disagree, by all means. We should take up the cudgels with the person making that statement. We should engage in debate, raise awareness, get into an argument. But if all I hear is someone saying ‘I’m offended by that,’ I know it for a wimp’s response. Get over yourself.