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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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    What's a Euphemism for Euphemism?

    Figarist Cari Jackson asks whether “euphemism” is the proper term for this blithe quote from a corporate CEO:

    I don’t want to say layoffs. I’d say, perhaps, redeployed is a better term.

    There is indeed, Cari! 

    Figure of Thought: meiosis (my-OH-sis), the shrinker. From the Greek, meaning “to shrink.”

    The meiosis (“It’s just a flesh wound!”) redefines an issue to make it sound less important. Reminds us of “The Simpsons’” evil nuclear plant owner, Mr. Burns: “Oh, meltdown. It’s one of those annoying buzzwords. We prefer to call it an unrequested fission surplus.”

    Let’s call a spade a spade. But when someone calls an earth mover a spade, don’t call it a euphemism. It’s a meiosis. Got any more examples of mealy-mouthed shrinkers? Please comment!


    It's a Bill, Not a Check

    In a rare press conference yesterday, Obama did exactly what Figaro urges persuaders to do: define the terms favorably.

    He’s trying to gain an advantage in negotiations over increasing the debt limit—the authority Congress gives the president for paying the nation’s bills. In the past decade, Congress has controlled the terms, calling the debt limit increase a “check,” as if they’re authorizing new bills. This time around, Obama turned the check into a bill. 

    Here’s how Aaron Blake put it in The Washington Post

    Rather than argue over whether the debt ceiling should be raised to authorize more borrowing, Obama is instead arguing that Congress is voting simply to pay the bills that it has already racked up — a semantic difference, perhaps, but a very important one at the same time. In effect, Obama is trying to shift the burden of failure to Republicans in much the same way he did during the fiscal cliff debate.

    Aaron, every definition strategy entails semantic differences. Semantics make the rhetorical world go round. 


    It's Not a Tragedy

    What can we say about the children massacre? “OK, Jay, do something,” says Melinda, a college English instructor in Colorado. “You’re the argument man….Every religious right idiot is posting cliched sayings on TEE SHIRTS for goodness sakes that this terrible tragedy occurred because we have taken prayer (and therefore God) out of public schools. I know there’s a fallacy there.”

    There is, Melinda. More than one, actually. (Post hoc ergo propter hoc and Straw Man lead my list). But remember, pointing out fallacies generally fails to persuade. 

    Besides, this is more of a framing issue than a mere argument. You want to redefine the terms and focus the issue to achieve your goal.

    What goal? I have one: Make it harder to pour bullets into small children. That’s something a majority of Americans should agree on, right? In practical terms, that means restoring the laws that expired under the Bush presidency—laws that banned assault weapons and large-capacity bullet clips. 

    So let’s talk about how to frame the issue, getting Congress to restore the ban on assault weapons and large clips.

    1. Don’t call it a tragedy. “Tragedy” implies an act of the gods, something terribly sad but inevitable. Instead, call it a massacre. A massacre is the most violent kind of crimes, and it implies that more than one person was involved. (We’ll get to that in a bit.)
    2. Keep the focus on the children. This was a massacre of children. Gundamentalists will try to focus on the shooter. That allows them to make a reasonable-sounding case for school prayer: As our morals deteriorate,  more sick people will do horrible things. Frame the issue around making it harder to massacre children. You can’t pray away legally acquired assault weapons and large-capacity ammo clips. 
    3. Demonize the NRA. I like Robert Shrum’s label, the National Rampage Association. There’s more than one culprit in this massacre. While the NRA didn’t specifically set out to massacre children, they did work with brutal efficiency to allow the massacre to happen. 
    4. Make the wafflers sound weak. Obama wiped a tear away while reading careful language avoiding direct talk of gun control. Demand that the President, and leaders in general, stand up to the NRA. It’s the ultimate classroom bully—a bully that allowed every small terrified child in a first grade to be killed with legally acquired assault weapons. 
    5. When the Second Amendment gets mentioned, bring the focus back to the children. The Second Amendment calls for a “well regulated militia” to protect the “security of a free state.” Ask what the security of a free state has to do with massacring children. Laws that make it easy to massacre children arguably violate the Second Amendment. Eleven bullets into a small child: Security?
    6. Be the moderate in the debate. Ultimately, the more moderate-sounding argument wins. As long as the issue stays focused on the children and not on the shooter, on the children instead of “freedom,” then the issue comes down to this: Are you for or against the massacre of children? 

    It’s all about the children. As long as the issue focuses on them, their deaths—their criminal massacre—won’t be entirely meaningless.


    Learn Rhetoric, Get Rich

    Fun Skype interview with Roberto Monaco of Influenceology fame. I angled the camera to make my mouth look even bigger.


    Big Mayors Don't Hug

    The reverse exaggeration called a litotes can make you sound like a no-nonsense New Yorker. 

    The people in this city didn’t elect Mike Bloomberg three times to give him a hug.
    Howard Wolfson, deputy mayor of New York, quoted in the New York Times


    Major Bloomberg isn’t exactly the teary, I-feel-your-pain type. Some people have criticized Bloomberg for that, wishing he’d be more like that big demonstrative guy over in New Jersey. Howard Wolfson responds with a nice litotes.


    Figure of Speech: litotes (lie-TOE-tees), the “not exactly” figure. From the Greek litos, meaning “plain” or “meager.” (Hardly an over-the-top name, what?) You’ll find more on this figure on page 155 of Word Hero.


    This offspring of understatement denies an exaggeration. You might call it an ironic form of hyperbole; by denying an exaggeration, the litotes tends to make an exaggeration of its own. An overstated understatement, if you will. What makes the figure so remarkable is its paradoxical ability to turn up the volume by turning it down.


    The greatest litotes in history was an often-misquoted cable sent by Mark Twain after newspapers erroneously reported his death. 


    Twain: The report of my death was an exaggeration.


    You’ll find other examples of litotes here, here, here, and here.



    Guy Fieri, Are Your Ears Burning?

    A scorching restaurant review in The New York Times has the town all abuzz. Critic Pete Wells chews up celebrity chef Guy Fieri of the TV show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” and spits him out. Note, dear Figarists, just how Wells spits Fieri. The writer uses one of the oldest, and cruelest, tools in rhetoric.

    GUY FIERI, have you eaten at your new restaurant in Times Square? Have you pulled up one of the 500 seats at Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar and ordered a meal? Did you eat the food? Did it live up to your expectations?

    Figure of Speech: prosopopoeia (pro-so-po-PEE-uh), the impersonator. From the Greek, meaning to “make a mask.”

    The proposopopoeia was a classroom technique performed by ancient rhetoric students (part of the progymnasmata exercise, if you must know). They took on characters from history, or pretended that animals were people, or spoke to chairs, or—pay attention here, people—addressed characters who weren’t in the room. Out in the real world, orators loved to speak meanly to absent people, using the second-person voice. (“You,” not “He.”) The Greeks happily called this feat “vituperation.”

    That’s what Pete Wells does here. He does vituperation with style. Instead of just talking about Fieri’s lousy restaurant behind the chef’s back, Wells talks to Fieri himself—behind his back. It sounds that much more accusatory, so much more, well, vituperative. In a speech, it can sound a bit melodramatic. But in a review, it comes off rare and juicy, with a whole lot of spice.