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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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    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.


    Sex! Betrayal! Aristotelian Logic!

    We’re titillated. Oh, yes, we’re titillated. After the endless Obama-Romney campaign, with the bland leading the bland, we’re finally back to tawdry scandal.

    The formerly untouchable General David Petraeus, head of the CIA, messes with his hardbody biographer. Then the top general in Afghanistan gets in trouble for sending thousands of emails to the woman who tipped off an FBI agent, who in turn emailed shirtless pictures of himself to… Can you just feel the rhetoric, people?

    No, we can’t either. But all those emails raised privacy questions, which produced a good quote in the New York Times, which gives us today’s figure.

    If the C.I.A. director can get caught, it’s pretty much open season on everyone else.

    Marc Rotenberg, executive director of theElectronic Privacy Information Center in Washington

    Figure of Speech: argumentum a fortiori (ah-for-tee-OR-ee), argument from strength.

    The a fortiori argument goes like this: If it works for a hard case, it will certainly work for an easy one.You’d think the head of the CIA could conduct a clandestine affair, you know, clandestinely. And if he can’t, think what government investigators could do with the emails of us non-spy types. (You’ll find a fortiori on page 7 of Thank You for Arguing.)

    Figaro uses fortiori with his work all the time. “Hey,” he tells clients. “High school kids are learning these techniques. Sophisticated persuaders like you can learn them, too.” Of course, high school kids also learn calculus. But Figaro doesn’t mention that.

    So what’s your own best argument from strength? Put it in the comments below. No shirtless photos, please.


    Republicans, Meet Eddie Haskell

    Starting today, smart Republicans will begin planning how to win the White House back. The really smart ones will listen to Figaro. 

    One figure of thought can make or break the GOP’s presidential hopes: the Eddie Haskell ploy. (You’ll find it on page 64 of Thank You for Arguing.) Eddie Haskell was the smarmy kid who sucked up to Mrs. Cleaver in “Leave It to Beaver.” In rhetoric, the ploy entails enthusiastically switching sides when you’re about to lose. It improves your rhetorical virtue—the part of your image that has to do with values.

    The single biggest reason for Obama’s re-election was the Hispanic vote, which composed 10% of the electorate. Obama won 70%. To take some of those voters away next time around, Republicans will have to swallow hard, turn their backs on the Tea Party, and sponsor a bill to ease immigration. What’s more, they’ll have to back some version of the Dream Act, giving the children of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.

    No matter how Republicans feel about this issue, the number crunchers can’t dodge the data. The Hispanic vote is growing. The Dream Act is a pivotal issue.

    Figaro’s advice? The GOP’s congressional leaders should come up with their own version of the Dream Act. Call it the “Earn It Act.” Build in extra business-friendly provisions that the Democrats will have to eat. Allow the brightest kids to attend college, and award citizenship to those who earn their degree or serve in the military, regardless of their documentation.

    The Hispanic vote should be a swing vote. For one thing, it’s a diverse group. The only factor tying Hispanics together is immigration. (Not language, necessarily; many Hispanics favor English.) Snatch the immigration issue from the Democrats, and Hispanics will begin to migrate—toward the GOP.

    Get your aides drafting now, boys. Tell them: It’s the Eddie Haskell Ploy, stupid.


    Which Meme Won the Debates?

    Since last night’s debate was boring and pretty much meaningless (“I think we all love teachers,” said exasperated moderator Bob Schieffer in a discussion purportedly about foreign policy), the only takeaway is the meme. 

    What makes a great meme? Four elements:

    • Excellent visuals. (Binders. Women. Archaic weaponry.)
    • Rhythm (BIND-ers FULL of WOM-en.)
    • The horse’s mouth. (“Binders full of women.”)
    • The essence of an ethos. (“Let them eat cake!”)

    So let’s see which meme won:

    VISUALS: We love horses and women. (Um, we mean that in a good way.) TIE

    RHYTHM: “Horses and bayonets” aren’t as hip-hop rhythmical as “Binders full of women.” BINDERS

    HORSE’S MOUTH: A meme works better when it plays off something the victim said, or allegedly said. Romney came up with “Binders full of women.” Obama came prepared with his bayonets. Therefore: BINDERS

    ETHOS: A great meme captures the negative personality the opponent wants to create. Democrates portray Romney as being a cluelessly sexist plutocrat, the kind of guy who sees women in binders. On the other hand, it’s harder to believe that Romney is hopelessly clueless about military affairs. Again, BINDERS.

    So who won the last two debates? Binders full of women, 3-0.


    Take My Opponent. Please.

    Obama and Romney brought the finest political jokes money can buy to the Alfred E. Smith dinner, a fundraising roast given by New York Catholics every four years. Romney delivered one of our favorites, using the Surprise Ending figure called paraprosdokian.

    President Obama and I are both very lucky to have one person who’s always in our corner, someone who we can lean on and someone who is a comforting presence without whom we wouldn’t be able to go another day. I have my beautiful wife, Ann; he has Bill Clinton.

    Figure of Speech:  paraprosdokian (pah rah proze DOKE ee an), the unexpected ending. 

    Hard as it is to pronounce, the paraprosdokian can give you instant wit.  Start with a banal clause or cliche and end with a surprise. You’ll more figurative surprises here.  For more cool ways to twist a cliché, see page 213 of Thank You for Arguing.

    Both sides scored political points but nobody seemed to care who “won.” Which makes us wonder: Why not require all the debates to be funny?