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A love affair with words
May 9, 2011 - Stephen Browne
Ever since I could speak, I've loved words - as my nearest and dearest could tell you. At length.
It's in the blood I suppose. My Celtic ancestors honored bards (singers and poets,) and seanachies (storytellers,) even above warriors and kings, and until recently the Irish Republic did not tax income from art and literature.
More recently my family were Okies, who mightily admire colorful speech, perhaps because of the colorful soil, perhaps because a bleak land encourages verbal invention.
I love the well-turned phrase, the folksy simile, the memorable metaphor, the artful alliteration.
So it was a joy to discover that the ancient Greeks had studied and actually named these figures of speech. The study was called "rhetoric," the art of persuasive speaking.
Notice in the above list there is no "and" before the last item. I meant to do that, it's for effect. (Notice also two alliterations, the second and third items on the list.)
Furthermore, it has a name: brachylogia, defined as, "The absence of conjunctions between single words. The effect of brachylogia is a broken, hurried delivery."
If you go to the website Sylva Rhetoricae ("The Forrest of Rhetoric,") you'll find the best summary of what the Greeks, and later the Romans, discovered about figures of speech, from "abating" to "zeugma." (Here: http://rhetoric.byu.edu/)
What wonderful names!
One of my favorites is "chiasmus," meaning "crisscross," defined as, "a verbal pattern (a type of antithesis) in which the second half of an expression is balanced against the first with the parts reversed."
It operates on the syllabic, word, phrase, and concept level, from the sublime to the ridiculous.
For example, Winston Churchill, one of the great masters of English rhetoric, is known for sublime chiastic comparisons. Take this sage advice:
"A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty."
Or his somber warning after British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich, waving the pact with Hitler he promised was "Peace in our time."
"You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You have chosen dishonor, you will have war."
Sublime indeed! Words to move men.
Now consider this delightfully silly syllabic chiasmus.
"I'd rather have a free bottle in front of me, than a pre-frontal lobotomy."
Or Samuel Johnson's devastating critique of a would-be author's manuscript.
"My congratulations to you, sir. Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good. "
Once when when we had something called a "classical education," rhetoric was studied as one of the first three of the seven liberal arts, called the trivium: grammar, dialectic (logic,) and rhetoric. You were expected to have mastered the trivium before you even entered college. There you went on to study the quadrivium: arithmetic, astronomy, music, and geometry.
Nowadays logic is sometimes encountered as an undergraduate elective in college, usually too late to do anybody any good, and rhetoric might be found in diluted form as a specialized course for English majors.
And that's both a pity, and alarming.
It's a pity because it's both interesting and useful. Useful for anyone who must communicate effectively. Effective for anyone learning to recognize and resist propaganda. (That's an example of anadiplosis.)
And it's alarming because rhetoric was invented along with democracy. It flourishes whenever there are vigorous senates and parliaments, and declines when representative government declines.
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