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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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    Is That an AK-47 Or Are You Glad to See Me?

    soljerhug.gifQuote:  "By hugging the enemy, wrapping our arms around them, we hope to control them."  Anonymous U.S. commander quoted in the Washington Post.

    Figure of Speechepergesis (eh per GEE sis), the clarifier.  (Also spelled epexegesis.)

    The military is adding "mentors" in Iraq to keep the Shiite militias and death squads, a.k.a. "the Iraq army," from killing Sunnis.  The commander uses an epergesis (Greek for "explanation"), which clarifies a statement—just in case you thought "hugging the enemy" was just a metaphor.

    We could stand a little more clarification, though.  Can you tell us who the enemy is again?

    Snappy Answer:  "No kissing, though.  Then they control you."


    A Machine! Let’s Put Money In It!

    Slotbaby.jpgQuote:  "Regardless of which mechanical apparatus is added; regardless of how many funny cartoons there are; regardless of whether they play the song from a TV show, give the player a board game to play, play the overture from Les Misérables, or get down on one knee and sing ‘Mammy’, all modern slot machines are computers.”  Frank Legato, author of "How to Win Millions Playing Slot Machines!... or Lose Trying."

    Figure of Speechanaphora (an AH for ah), the first-word repeater.

    The anaphora (Greek for "carrying back") is crude but effective; just begin every clause or phrase with the same word and let it build to a crescendo.

    Author Frank Legato uses an anaphora to describe the sophistication of slot machines that coax suckers' food budget and house payments into their friendly maws.  According to the Atlantic Monthly, America now has twice as many gambling machines as ATMs, "and more than a quarter of American adults now list gambling as their No. 1 entertainment choice."

    We'll take that as good news.  Three out of four Americans aren't complete idiots.

    Snappy Answer:  "You should shorten that book title to Millions Lose Trying."


    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?"