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Figaro rips the innards out of things people say and reveals the rhetorical tricks and pratfalls. For terms and definitions, click here.
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    And Wait Till the Tea Leaves

    cuppatuna.gifQuote: When Detective Riggs was called to investigate the theft of a trainload of Native American fish broth concentrate bound for market, he solved the case almost immediately, being that the trail of clues led straight to the trainmaster, who had both the locomotive and the Hopi tuna tea. –Mitsy Rae of Danbury, Nebraska, a runner-up in the Bullwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for bad writing.

    Figure of Speech:   paronomasia (par oh no MAY zha), the near-pun.

    A paronomasia isn’t a pun in the strictest sense.  A pun uses different meanings for the same word. (The hunter didn’t like buffalo, but moose was deer to him.)   A paronomasia is far more annoying, because it uses different words that are homonyms; they only sound alike.

    In ancient times and right up through Shakespeare’s era, people didn’t look down on wordplay.  A pun—and its country cousin, paronomasia—let the speaker sound two meanings at once, like a musician striking a chord, or like a really good yodeler.  (Wait: yodelers have always been annoying. Forget yodelers.)

    What's In It for You: Parents should spend less time correcting their kids’ grammar and turn mealtimes into language playgrounds.  When your kid whips out her paronomasia, try to laugh.


    We Apologize in Advance for This Offensive Photo

    Cereal_Hot_10.4.jpgQuote: “There’s no way to apologize for such a sin.” San Francisco Giants manager Felipe Alou, in repsonse to an apology by radio host Larry Krueger.  The radio station suspended Krueger after he called the Giants “brain-dead Caribbean players hacking at slop nightly.”  Krueger also said of Alou:  “You have in Felipe a manager whose mind has turned to Cream of Wheat.”

    Figure of Speech:  indignatio (in dig NOT ee oh), the figure of scorn

    Felipe Alou could have told Krueger to stick a spoon in it.  Instead, Alou upped the ante and labeled the insult a “sin.”  Not just any sin, either—such a sin. Maybe a deadly one.  (We always forget which sin comes after lust.)

    Ordinarily, when you drag God into a debate, don’t look for a consensus.  An argument has to do with persuasion and public opinion, while religion is about faith and an omniscient authority.  But in this case, Krueger has a heavenly appeal.  At least one religion gets you out of a sin if you say you’re sorry and mean it.  It’s called Christianity.

    Snappy Answer:   "What do you suggest instead?  Hell?"

    Indignatio isn’t so much an expression of indignation as an attempt to make an audience see your adversary as a jerk.  When you use the figure, just make sure you don’t come off as a bigger jerk.  


    Don't Call It a War

    dropping_gifts.jpgQuote:   “This is no more a war on terrorism than the Second World War was a war on submarines.”  Marine Lieutenant General Wallace Gregson

    Figure of Speech:   Antapodosis (an tah POE doe sis), the side-by-side figure

    A kind of simile in which the nouns and verbs correspond, the antapodosis can be one of the most persuasive of all figures.  Take Woody Allen’s convincing summary of secondary education:  “Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach gym.”

    General Gregson’s antapodosis supports a favorite new tag line minted by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: what used to be a war on terrorism is now a “global struggle against extremism.” 

    Snappy Answer:    "So it's  not a war, it’s a struggle; therefore we’re not fighting, we’re...what?"



    Hutz.gifQuote:  “Well, he’s kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace 'accidentally' with 'repeatedly,' and replace 'dog' with 'son.'  Lionel Hutz, a character in "The Simpsons"

    Figure of Speech:   Epexegesis (ee pex uh GEE sis), the figure of elaboration

    Lawyer Lionel Hutz  invariably tells the truth, the whole truth, through sheer incompetence:  “ I’ve argued in front of every judge in this state—often as a lawyer.”  He endearingly addends himself with the figure of speech called epexegesis (“explanation” in Greek).  The epexegesis adds material to clarify a statement. In Hutz’s case, it clarifies to the point of disaster. 

    Snappy Answer:   "I think I'll replace my attorney.  Period."


    Suffer the Little Stem Cells

    god billboard.gifQuote: "It isn't just a matter of faith. It's a matter of science.” Senate majority leader and early-out-of-the-gate presidential aspirant Bill Frist, arguing for federal funding for stem-cell research

    Figure of Speech: Syncrisis (SIN crih sis), the not-that-but-this figure

    Pity the politician who has to balance faith and politics. Talk about strange bedfellows (not to imply that Senator Frist believes in bedfellows, God forbid). When Frist tried combining faith, medicine and politics for a brain-dead woman, the results were awkward. So what do you do when three quarters of The People want to use stem cells, and crucial supporters don't? Bring out the syncrisis! A figure of speech that compares or contrasts, it's most useful in defining an issue.

    If we were Frist, we'd avoid playing golf in a thunderstorm.

    Snappy Answer: "So which wins, Senator? Faith or science?"


    “Popular Will?” Isn’t That a LIBERAL Term?

    john roberts.jpgQuote: "Not only are unelected jurists with life tenure less attuned to the popular will than regularly elected officials, but judicial policy making is also inevitably inadequate or imperfect policy making." John Roberts, responding to a Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire

    Term: Dirimens copulatio (DIH ri mens cop u LAT ee oh), the but-wait-there's-more figure

    John Robert is the Wonder Bread nominee. Boring haircut. Boring record, race, gender and ethnicity. Good thing we have rhetoric to rescue us from the tedium. While the Democrats can't find a single interesting fetish in the man, we can cry dirimens copulatio. That's Latin for "a joining together that interrupts," according to Richard Lanham.

    We thought that defined coitus interruptus, a birth-control method practiced by Catholic Supreme Court nominees. But we never quibble with the Strunk & White of rhetoric.

    Snappy Answer: "You just did a Dirimens copulatio. It makes me hot."