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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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    Johnny Is So Creative, It’s Scary.

    texaschainsaw.jpgQuote:  "The student works to the best of his ability."  Common teacher recommendation for college applicants, according to admissions officers in USA Today.

    Figure of Speechennoia (en NOY a), the figure of faint praise.

    According to USA Today, more than a tenth of teacher recommendations damn applicants through faint praise.  They employ the ennoia (Greek for "hidden intention").  The figure gets frequent exercise in our wimpy, argument-averse culture.  "Thirty years ago, a letter might have said that Johnny is not a nice person," says Lee Stetson, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, "whereas today the letter might say that Johnny does not have many friends."

    Extremely enoiing.

    Snappy Answer:  "Thank you for your candor."


    Another Paradox: “Delicious Eggnog”

    cuttingxmas.jpgQuote:   "Christians chop down trees to make houses to put trees in." Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer in the New York Times.

    Figure of Speechparadox, the contrary figure.

    Paradox is Greek for "contrary to doxa."  Doxa is Greek for "received wisdom," "popular belief," or "public opinion."  Tree-loving Christians know the word through the doxology—literally "statement of belief."

    In rhetoric, what people believe is as good as a fact.  The Greeks considered social life the most meaningful life; a fact that opposed popular belief was, therefore, a paradox.  So you can understand why the Greek word for someone who refused to participate in public life was idiot.

    Jonathan Foer’s A Beginner’s Guide to Hanukkah is educational, too — he names six Christmas songs written by Jews — if a little bit biased.  Christmas, he says, is a time when Christians "touch each other's sweaters while they sing together around pianos." And "here's another bad thing about Christmas," he says:  “Christmas trees are terrible fire hazards."

    Paradoxical, but true.

    Snappy Answer:  "So when are they going to put a dreidel spinning game on Xbox?"


    And the Speech Was Made Flesh

    nativity.jpgQuote:  "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us … full of grace and truth."  John 1:15

    Figure of Speechlogos, meaning "word," "argument by logic," and "speech."

    The Book of John begins, "In the beginning was logos"— in the beginning was the word.  But the apostle John's rhetorical training taught him that logos also deals with the orator's construction of an argument.  So you could also say, "In the beginning was the plan."

    The early Renaissance philosopher and rhetorician Desiderius Erasmus chose a different version of logos:  "In the beginning was the speech."  Erasmus, who uncovered many of Cicero's writings in old libraries and monasteries, thought it perfectly natural for his creator to talk, or even persuade, the world into being, and to convert that sacred speech into humanity.

    However you interpret John's "logos … made flesh," you have to love the King James translation, full of "grace and truth."

    Snappy Answer:  "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good argument."


    Do Spies Knock?

    spy_vs_spy.jpgQuote:  "The rule of law protects you and it protects me from the midnight fire on our roof or the three a.m. knock on our door.   It challenges abuse of authority… And so it's a matter of considerable concern to me when our legal system is assaulted by our nation’s chief law enforcement officer, the only person obliged to take care that the laws are faithfully executed."  Rep. Henry Hyde, urging impeachment of President Clinton in 1998

    Figure of Speechfable, the storytelling example.

    Aristotle said you can use three kinds of example in rhetorical logic:  fact, comparison, and "fable."  Congressman Hyde isn't remembering a specific midnight fire or three a.m. knock.  He's making his audience imagine these things happening to them—in a nation where the president flouts the laws.

    Any comparison between that quotation and the president's approval of NSA spying on Americans is entirely coincidental.

    Snappy Answer:  "Unless the prez decides we're bad guys.  Then there is no rule of law, right?"


    The School Board Was Certainly Un-evolved

    chimpmakemyday.gifQuote:  "Breathtaking inanity."  U.S. District Judge John Jones, describing the decision by the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board to include Intelligent Design in the curriculum.

    Figure of Speechthaumasmus (thaw MAS muss), the figure of wondering.

    Talk about activist judges. This liberal … Oh, wait. He's a Republican.  This federal judge somehow thinks it's unconstitutional to kidnap God and force Him to teach biology.

    Judge Jones uses a thaumasmus (Greek for "marveling") to express his wonder at the Creationists' attempt to politicize science.  Jones's thaumasmus is particularly elegant for its ironic hint at admiration.

    Snappy Answer:  "Maybe apes evolved from us."


    They Just Want to Decrease the Surplus Population

    Scrooge2.jpgQuote:  "I don't know what the poor, the elderly, the disabled, or our foster children have done to Republicans to deserve this… just a few days before Christmas." Congressman Charles Rangel

    Figure of Speechaporia, the figure of doubt.

    The Scrooges in Congress snuck back to their districts after passing a nasty budget package in the wee hours.  They saved a half of one percent of federal spending by slashing Medicare, Medicaid, and student loans while keeping subsidies for drug companies.

    Rangel uses an aporia (Greek for "at a loss"), a figure of real or pretended doubt.  In his case, we suppose it's pretended.

    Snappy Answer:  "The Republicans have nothing against the poor.  They're just clearing the way for more tax cuts."