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21 Rhetorical Devices Explained

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Rhetoric is often defined as “the art of language.” That might sound like a bit of a cliché (which it is), but it’s actually quite a nice way of saying that rhetorical devices and figures of speech can transform an ordinary piece of writing or an everyday conversation into something much more memorable, evocative, and enjoyable. Hundreds of different rhetorical techniques and turns of phrase have been identified and described over the centuries—of which the 21 listed here are only a fraction—but they’re all just as effective and just as useful when employed successfully.

1. ADYNATON

You’ll no doubt have heard of hyperbole, in which an over-exaggeration is used for rhetorical effect, like, “he’s as old as the hills,” “we died laughing,” or “hyperbole is the best thing ever.” But adynaton is a particular form of hyperbole in which an exaggeration is taken to a ridiculous and literally impossible extreme, like “when pigs fly!” or “when Hell freezes over!”

2. ANACOLUTHON

Often used in literature to create a stream-of-consciousness style in which a character’s thoughts flit from one idea to the next, anacoluthon describes a sudden and unexpected break in a sentence that leads to it being concluded in a different way than might have been expected. Although it can sometimes be due to nothing more than a speaker losing their train of thought, in practice anacoluthon can also be OH MY GOD I’VE LEFT THE GAS ON.

3. ANADIPLOSIS

Anadiplosis is an ingenious and memorable rhetorical device in which a repeated word or phrase is used both at the end of one sentence or clause and at the beginning of the next. As with practically all rhetorical devices, William Shakespeare liked using it (“She being none of your flesh and blood, your flesh and blood has not offended the king”), but you can thank George Lucas for what is now probably the best-known example: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

4. ANTHYPOPHORA

You know when you pose a question for dramatic effect and then immediately answer it yourself? That’s anthypophora.

5. ANTIMERIA

If you’ve ever friended or texted someone, emailed or DMed something, tabled a meeting or motorwayed your way across country, then you’ll be familiar with antimeria, a rhetorical device in which an existing word is used as if it were a different part of speech. More often than not this involves using a noun as if it were a verb, a semantic process better known as “verbing” (which is actually a perfect example of itself). Slang (and modern English in general, for that matter) loves antimeria, but it is Shakespeare who remains the undisputed master of it. Cake, drug, kitchen, squabble, ghost, blanket, graze, elbow, and crank were all only ever used as nouns before he got hold of them.

6. ANTIPROSOPOPOEIA

Prosopopoeia is just a more formal name for personification, in which inanimate objects are either described in human terms or given human characteristics. The opposite of that is antiprosopopoeia, a figure of speech in which a person is compared to an inanimate object. That might sound odd, but it’s actually a very effective form of metaphor able to confer a great deal of detail or information in a clever and often witty way—think about what it means to call someone a doormat, a tank, a firecracker, a mattress, or a garbage disposal and you’ll see precisely how effective it can be.

7. ANTONOMASIA

The Bard. The Iron Lady. The King. Ol’ Blue Eyes. When you substitute a proper name for an epithet or a nickname, that’s antonomasia.

8. APOSIOPESIS

In Act 2 of King Lear, the eponymous king rages against two of his daughters in a disjointed speech that ends with the famous lines, “I will have such revenges on you both that all the world shall—I will do such things—what they are yet, I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth!” The point at which Lear’s threat of revenge trails off, restarts, and trails off again is a perfect example of aposiopesis, a rhetorical ploy in which an idea is left unsaid or a sentence is left incomplete purely for emphatic effect. Why I oughta…

9. ASTERISMOS

Right. Okay. Here goes. Asterismos is the use of a seemingly unnecessary word or phrase to introduce what you’re about to say. Semantically it’s fairly pointless to say something like “listen!” before you start talking to someone, because they are (or at least should be) already listening. Rhetorically, however, asterismos is a seriously clever way of subconsciously drawing attention to what you’re about to say.

10. ASYNDETON

“We got there, the weather was bad, we didn’t stay long, we got back in the car, we came home, end of story.” When you deliberately miss out the conjunctions between successive clauses, you’re left with a choppy and abrupt series of phrases that energetically push things forward, an effect properly known as asyndeton. The opposite is called polysyndeton, when you add more conjunctions to a phrase or clause than are strictly necessary, often with the effect of intentionally dragging it out: “We ate and drank and talked and laughed and talked and laughed and ate some more.”

11. CHIASMUS

Apart from the fact that it’s part of a great speech, one of the reasons why John F. Kennedy’s famous “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” line is so striking is that is a fine example of chiasmus, a clever rhetorical formation in which the order of a pair of words or phrases in one clause (your country, you) is inverted in the next (you, your country). This gives a rhythmic and instantly memorable criss-cross pattern, AB-BA, which appropriately enough takes its name from the X-shaped Greek letter chi.

12. CONGERY

Congery is a form of tautology, the rhetorical use of repetition. It refers to a writer or speaker using a number of different and successive words or phrases that all effectively mean the same thing, purely to emphasise the point. That’s it. That’s all. Done. Finished. Finito.

13. DIALOGISMUS

In a dialogismus, a speaker either imagines what someone or something else might be thinking (“I bet that guy’s thinking, ‘what am I doing here?’”), or else paraphrases someone’s earlier words (“‘Don’t worry!’ she told me. ‘Everything will be fine!’”). In either case, the speaker ends up talking not as themselves just for rhetorical effect.

14. DYSPHEMISM

If a euphemism is a nicer turn of phrase used in place of a more offensive or embarrassing one (like “call of nature” or “bought the farm”), then a dysphemism is an offensive or detrimental phrase deliberately used in place of a nicer one. This applies to everything from using an insult instead of someone’s name, to phrases like frankenfood and junk food that try to influence what we should think of genetically modified crops and take-out restaurants with just a few choice words.

15. EUTREPISMUS

First, we need to explain what this is. Second, we need to show how it works. And third, we need to explain what it achieves. Eutrepismus is the numbering or ordering of a series of phrases that are all under consideration, and it’s used to structure arguments and speeches more clearly, making them easier for an audience to take in and follow your train of thought.

16. EXPEDITIO

An expeditio is that instantly recognisable figure of speech in which you list a number of alternatives, and then proceed to eliminate all but one of them. “We can go for Italian, Mexican, or Chinese. But I had Chinese last night and you hate garlic, so it’s going to have to be Mexican.”

17. HYPOCATASTASIS

When you say that something is like something else (“as busy as a bee”), that’s a simile. When you say that something actually is something else (“a heart of stone”) that’s a metaphor. But when you just go all out and label something as something that it actually isn’t (“You chicken!”), that’s a hypocatastasis.

18. PLEONASM

When you use more words than are in actual fact absolutely really strictly necessary in order to communicate and make your point effectively and efficiently, that’s a pleonasm. It needn’t be as clumsy and as long-winded as that, of course, and more often than not the term pleonasm is used to apply to what is otherwise called “semantic redundancy,” in which extra qualifying words are used to force a point home—like “empty space,” “boiling hot,” or “totally unique.”

19. SYNECDOCHE

A synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part or component of something is used to represent that whole—like calling a car your “wheels,” the staff of a company the “hands,” or the film industry as a whole “Hollywood.”

20. TMESIS

Tmesis is the proper name for that fan-bloody-tastic technique of splitting a word in half by inserting another word inside it. More often than not, the word being inserted in the other is a swearword (you can provide your own examples for that), but it needn’t always be—tmesis can be used any-old-how you like.

21. ZEUGMA

There are several different forms and definitions of precisely what a zeugma is, but in basic terms it describes a figure of speech in which one word (usually, but not always, a verb) governs or is directly related to two or more other words in the same sentence. So you can run out of time, and out of the room. You can have a go, and a laugh. And, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, you can go home in floods of tears and a sedan-chair.

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Something Something Soup Something
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      This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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      Something Something Soup Something

      Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

      That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

      Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

      The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

      You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

      [h/t Waypoint]

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