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    We’re Merismized

    USA_ballnchain.jpgQuote:  The “cool, carefully considered, methodical, prolonged and repeated subjection of captives to physical torment, and the accompanying psychological terror, is immoral.”  Philip D. Zelikow, executive director of the 911 Commission, quoted in the New York Times.

    Figure of Speech:  merismus (mer-IS-mus), the distribution figure.  From the Greek, meaning “part.”  Also called a merism (MER-ism) in English.

    Groucho Marx’s quip that “military intelligence” is a contradiction in terms may have been unfair, at least when he made it.  During World War II, highly trained interrogators educed crucial information German and Japanese prisoners without torture—also known as “harsh techniques” in White House-ease.  The Intelligence Science Board, a group of experts advising government agencies, has issued a review of current methods and concluded that they’re less effective than the old WWII methods.

    The 911 Commission’s Philip Zelikow says they’re also just plain wrong.  Zelikow, who edited the law review at the University of Houston, offers a lawyerly definition of—not torture, exactly, but it’s clear what he’s talking about.  America does not torture people.  We’re not that kind of country. 

    His rhetorical device, the merism, takes a concept like “cold-blooded” and names its constituent parts instead. The Biblical God merismizes himself as “Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End.”  Use the merism as a subtle form of hyperbole; instead of telling the boss you worked on Saturday, throw him a merism:  “I worked from dawn till dusk.”

    But don’t say it was torture.

    Snappy Answer:  “Carefully considered? At least that’s a start.”

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    Reader Comments (6)

    That's also a great example of what Martha Kolln in _Rhetorical Grammar_ calls "end focus." The reader remembers "immoral" because of its placement in the sentence after the artful detail in the beginning. It's also almost like a slantwise periodic sentence.
    May 30, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTim N. Taylor
    Dear Figaro,

    I am confused about your 'We're Mesmerized'-item.
    My first reaction was: it's a periphrasis or circumlocution.
    Periphrasis is a figure where the meaning of a word - here torture - is expressed by many words.
    Merismus is an expression in which the whole of something is expressed by two extremes.
    See your example: 'I worked from dawn till dusk.'
    The extremes are missing in the Zelikow quote. Did I miss something?
    Please help me out!
    Thank you Figaro,

    Arie Vrolijk
    May 31, 2007 | Unregistered Commentera. vrolijk
    You cover one definition of the merism, Arie, but there's a broader one as well. While circumlocution hints at a thing without naming it--a form of irony, of withholding information from the audience--the merism attempts to cover the concept's whole gamut. The merism does this either by bracketing (naming the extremes) or by listing every attribute.

    Figaro hopes this explains the figure's every part and parcel.
    May 31, 2007 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    Excellent point about "end focus," Tim. Marketing research backs up Kolln. In persuasion, last is usually best.

    May 31, 2007 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    Neat takes on the joy of torture policy. How sad.
    May 31, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher
    What's even sadder is the stand of almost every Republican candidate for president. At the last debate they fell over each other in an attempt to sound the most extreme. The only exception happened to be the one candidate of either party ever to undergo torture himself: John McCain. His ethos goes way beyond the rhetorical.

    May 31, 2007 | Registered CommenterFigaro

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