24 April 2012

Paraprosdokia

by Dale C. Andrews
 
    A hallowed device in the mystery writer’s lexicon is the twist ending – an unexpected event that throws all that has preceded it into a different light.  As kids we all loved the Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and our adult lives have often been spent grumbling over the fact that so many of the great twist endings were used while we were still in grade school. (Dammit, I could have written that story about the frozen leg of lamb!)  The twist ending is not relegated solely to novels or short stories; it also exists in more minimalistic surrounds as the paraprosdokian.

    I knew the device long before I knew the device’s name.  "Paraprosdokian" comes from Greek "παρά", meaning "against" and "προσδοκία", meaning "expectation."  A paraprosdokian is a figure of speech used to describe an observation, framed in a phrase or a sentence or sentences, in which the ending is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader to reframe or reinterpret the observation as a whole.  A classic example is:  “I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather; not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.”  Another is:  “The last thing I want to do is hurt you. But it’s still on the list.”

    Sometimes the basis for a paraprosdokian relies on a word that can have two meanings.  Generally these can be completed with the phrase “you can say that again.” 
  • Prime Minister:  “Your highness, the peasants are revolting.”  King:  “You can say that again.”
  • Wife:  “You have to admit that my parents are trying.”  Husband:  “You can say that again.”
  
Will Rogers
     Paraprosdokia are particularly popular among satirists. Tom Lehrer (who turned 84 last week), introduced a song with reference to his college roommate who he described as having“majored in animal husbandry . . . until they caught him at it.”  And Mort Sahl (who turns 85 next month) once observed “my right is your left, which is increasingly becoming the problem in this country.”  Will Rogers also used the device – “I belong to no organized political party.  I am a Democrat.”  Rogers also said that “Ohio claims they are due a president as they haven't had one since Taft.  Look at the United States, they have not had one since Lincoln.”  (That quote apparently pre-dates the election of Warren Harding, which shows that Ohio should be careful what it wishes for.)

   Among politicians, Winston Churchill was probably best known for relying on paraprosdokia to make a point.  Among his classic observations are:

  • There but for the grace of God -- goes God.
  • A modest man, who has much to be modest about.  
  • If you are going through hell, keep going.
  •  It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.
  • You can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they've tried everything else.
    Probably the consummate expert in Paraprosdokia was Groucho Marx.  At one time or another Groucho uttered all of the following:  
  • I've had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn't it.
  • Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.  (This one gets my "best in show" award!)
  • Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read.
  • When you're in jail, a good friend will be trying to bail you out. A best friend will be in the cell next to you saying, 'Damn, that was fun.’
  • From the moment I picked your book up until I laid it down, I convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend on reading it.
  • The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made.
  •  I have nothing but respect for you -- and not much of that.
  • She got her looks from her father. He's a plastic surgeon.
    Groucho advanced the art form even further, at times combining paraprosdokia with outrageous puns.  Examples include:
  • For that act alone the defendant should get ten years in Levenworth, or eleven years in twelveworth, or five and ten in the Woolworth.
  • Get out of my life.  You can leave in a taxi and if you can’t find a taxi you can leave in a huff.  And if you need more time, make it a minute and a huff.
  • When love comes in the door, money flies out the innuendo.
    A spin through the internet uncovers many other unattributed examples of this engaging figure of speech. (Some of these examples stray a bit from the paraprosdokian formula, but what the hey -- they are funny!)
  • I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn't work that way. So I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness.
  • Do not argue with an idiot. He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience.
  • Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.
  • Light travels faster than sound. This is why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.
  • If I agreed with you, we'd both be wrong.
  • War does not determine who is right - only who is left.
  • Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.
  • Evening news is where they begin with 'Good evening' and then proceed to demonstrate why it isn't.
  • How is it one careless match can start a forest fire, but it takes a whole box to start a campfire?
  • Why is it wrong to use a handicapped parking space but all right to use a handicapped bathroom stall?
  • I didn't say it was your fault; I said I was blaming you.
  • Why do Americans choose from just two people to run for president and 50 for Miss America?
  • In totalitarian countries there is complete freedom of speech – you can say anything that you want to.  Once.
  • When tempted to fight fire with fire, remember that the Fire Department usually uses water.
  • When tempted to “split the baby,” remember that this was precisely what Solomon avoided doing.
  • To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.
  • Life isn’t what it used to be.  And it never was.
  • Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.
    Having spun all of this into an article, I suppose the best way to close is with one last paraprosdokian that sums up the writing process for this piece:

                To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.

(Be sure to click the link for a rousing send-off!)


9 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

That's the best collection I've seen yet, Dale.

My neighbour knocked on my door at two this morning, can you believe that? Two AM!!! Luckily for him I was still up playing my bagpipes.

By the way, zip on over to check out Google doodle today.

Janice said...

I feel like the chap in the Bourgeois Gentleman who had been speaking in prose and hadn't known it. Paraprosdokia is a word to cherish.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks for several robust chuckles this morning, Dale--should I forgive my husband for waking me up? (OK, that's a lame one.) A discussion on DorothyL a couple of years ago demonstrated that an awful lot of us of a certain age still remember ALL the lyrics to Tom Lehrer's songs--quite an achievement for a songwriter. Hard to believe he's 84.

Dale Andrews said...

Liz -- I actually can do virtually all of Tom Lehrer's songs. There is one noteworthy exception, The Elements. Much to my amazement, that song is done exceptionally well by . . . Harry Potter!!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rSAaiYKF0cs

Dixon Hill said...

Ah . . . there's nothing like a good post.

Sadly, that was nothing like a good post!

Just kidding! That was a GREAT post! I just had to steal and alter a joke I first heard in Mary Poppins: "There's nothing like a good joke. And, that was nothing like a good joke."

Really enjoyed it, Dale.
--Dix

Robert Lopresti said...

Wow, Groucho and Lehrer together.

Jeff Baker said...

This was wonderful! And I'm also a big Lehrer fan (who could, decades ago, sing "The Elements.") I'd ramble and gush more but it would fill several pages!

Leigh Lundin said...

(humming) Doin' the Vatican… Doin' the Vatican… Doing the Vatican Rag!

Mike Doran said...

Thank you, Dale.

Now at long last, I learn that the way I think about things has a fancy-delancey name!

I recently read of the time when Vincent Price was preparing the memorial service for his wife, Coral Browne, who, though Catholic, wasn't really strict about it.

The priest asked Price, "Did your wife have any favorite hymns?"

Price answered, "Yes ... and quite a few 'hers'."

...And there was a drunk who staggered into a bar(re), which really upset the ballerinas ...
(Okay, you have to say that one aloud, but it's the same principle, right?)

And there was a TV anchorman who was eulogized thus:
"When I think of (him), I think of St. Paul, of St. Joseph, of St. Augustine ... probably the three dullest cities in America."

And given time, I can probably think of hundreds more ...
... as can you all!

So happy ludittle sorspea!
(These recognition wordoids are a hoot sometimes!)