A Light-Hearted Look at Greek Figures of Rhetoric

Word Ways, February 2013 | Go to article overview

A Light-Hearted Look at Greek Figures of Rhetoric


On the night of June 21, 1932, in Madison Square Garden, Joe Jacobs, the manager for boxer Max Schmeling, heard the judges award a decision to Schmeling's opponent, Jack Sharkey. Enraged, Jacobs grabbed the announcer's microphone and shouted to the world, "We was robbed!" Turns out that Jacobs fashioned his patch of rhetorical and oratorical immortality from a Greek figure of speech called enallage, an effective mistake in grammar that drives home an argument. To those who complain that "We was robbed!" is a grammatical atrocity I say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," another enallage and one considerably more effective than "If it isn't broken, don't fix it."

When Abraham Lincoln concluded his remarks at Gettysburg by majestically describing a "government of the people, by the people, for the people," be was enlisting isocolon, a parallelism of grammatical forms, in this case prepositional phrases.

When Jonathan Swift sardonically wrote, "Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her appearance," be was taking advantage of the power of litotes, a deliberate understatement that helps make a point.

When a teenage bundle of hormones poured into sneakers suggests, "Dad, why don't Moro and you watch the tube tonight so that I can borrow the wheels?" he or she is exploiting synecdoche., the figurative substitution of a part for the whole.

These are but four of a veritable bestiary of figures of speech and rhetoric that the ancient Greeks created. Here's a look at ten of the more colorful and ubiquitous specimens:

Alliteration. The repetition of initial consonant sounds.

I am an alliteration addict, a slave to the seductions of sequential syllables starting with the same sound.

Leapin' lizards and jumpin' Jehosephat! You can bet your bottom dollar that I am an alliteration addict--a shell-shocked sad sack beating his breast and caught betwixt and between the devil and the deep blue sea, leaping from the frying pan into the fire on the road to rack and ruin. In wending my way through the whys and wherefores of this alluring activity, I shall not shilly shally, dilly dally, hem and haw, beat around the bush, wear out my welcome, pull any punches, leave you in the lurch, make a mountain out of a molehill, or throw the baby out with the bathwater. After all, I'm not a prim-and-proper, dry-as-dust, dull as dishwater, down in the dumps worrywart; a lily-livered, knock-kneed, mild-mannered, mealy-mouthed, daydreaming, tongue-tied, wishy-washy nice Nelly; or a backbiting, too-big-for-his-britches, bird-brained, hard-headed, bottom-of-the-barrel, party-pooping spoilsport.

Pretty please, don't raise the roof, clean my clock, throw a temper tantrum, and take me to task for being a ranting and raving crazy coot with bats in my belfry; a tattle-taling four-flusher who's out to add insult to run you ragged from stem to stern and pillar to post; or a hard-hearted, bamboozling, four-flushing flimflam man who feels free to get your goat and, to add fuel to the fire and insult to injury, make a monkey out of you with farfetched fiddle-faddle that contains neither rhyme nor reason, a bunch of baloney that you need like a bole in the head.

Good grief! Mind your manners, have a heart, and hold your horses. I may be fat and forty and worse for wear, bur, to tell the truth, turn the tables, and lay down the law, I prefer to take the proof positive off the back burner, put the fat on the fire, bring home the bacon, and talk turkey; to come clean and bite the bullet--first and foremost and sure as shootin' --by taking a no-nonsense, down-and, dirty, daredevil, death-defying, rip-roaring, rough-and-ready, fast-and-furious, mile-a-minute, wild and wooly, bolt-from-the-blue approach in beating the bushes to pinpoint this hale-and-hearty, short-and-sweet, spic-and-span, safe-and-sound, shipshape, fit-as-a-fiddle, picture-perfect, worthwhile, calm, cool (as a cucumber), and collected, tip-top topic. …

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