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The Bogus Word Paraprosdokian
Lazy Con Artists of Academe
What is a paraprosdokian?
A paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which a sentence or phrase has a surprise ending. It is often funny and so is used by comedians.
Throughout 2010 and now into 2011, paraprosdokian has become an internet buzzword. I have received dozens of emails containing lists of snappy lines which e-senders claim as exemplary paraprosdokians.
First I will give you some samples of this figure. I have no doubt the word now exists. What I object to is the attempt by lackadaisical, slipshod scholarship to claim that the word paraprosdokian is a term in classical rhetoric or to insist that it is a valid rhetorical label sanctioned by centuries of scholarly use. It is no such thing, as I prove below.
Examples of Paraprosdokians
Paraprosdokians are sentences, often joke lines, that have a surprise ending, often paradoxical or bathed in comic understatement.
Groucho Marx, to an audience after a speech he gave which was not well received, “I’ve had a wonderful evening — but this wasn’t it.”
“War does not determine who is right - only who is left.”
“The TV evening news is where they begin with ‘Good evening,’, and then proceed to tell you why it isn't.”
“Dolphins are so smart that, within a few weeks of captivity, they can train people to stand on the very edge of the pool and throw them fish.”
“If I am reading this graph correctly—I’d be very surprised.” —Stephen Colbert
“If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.” — Dorothy Parker
“A modest man, who has much to be modest about.” —Winston Churchill
“There, but for the grace of God, goes God.” —Winston Churchill about a pompous fellow politician.
“Where there’s a will, I want to be in it.”
”I sleep 8 hours a day. And at least 10 at night.” — Bill Hicks
My own fave is this one, said by a chemistry professor to some of his students who had turned in a subpar lab project: “If you're not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate.”
The Names of Rhetorical Figures
For the most part, figures of speech bear ancient Latin and Greek names like simile, metaphor, tmesis, litotes, climax and hyperbole, all borrowed into English in the nominative singular case. They are in fact actual Latin and Greek words borrowed directly into French and English. This does not mean one cannot dub new figures of speech with new names. Of course one may do so, although the chance of discovering a new common figurative mode of using words is rare to zero. But would you plunk into so ancient, so pristine, so apt, so correct a group of names a yahoo’s crude attempt at a bungled classicism? Certainly not. Yet that is precisely what paraprosdokian is, a clumsy, malformed, awkward semiliterate neologism.
Let’s continue now. Check out this current internet quotation. Here is a sentence, written ungrammatically, from a website purporting to define the word:
“As for paraprosdokian, like most rhetorical terms, it was adopted from Greek (root meaning, ‘beyond expectation’) -- the ancient Greeks loved analyzing how to speak.”
Casselman: The word paraprosdokian appears NOWHERE in ancient Greek literature. It was NEVER an ancient Greek word. Prosdokia is a Greek feminine noun. Yes, its accusative case is, in the singular, prosdokian. But why would an accusative case be used as a nominative presentation form? Why is EVERY OTHER GREEK NOUN used as a term in rhetoric in a nominative form: i.e. tmesis, syncope, litotes, etc. etc., but this one exception is in the accusative case?
Nearly every standard term in classical rhetoric, Latin or Greek, takes the form of a noun in the nominative case, the case of most Greek and Latin words borrowed into later European languages, certainly of most borrowings into English and French. But this one, we are asked to believe, is accusative in case form. It consists of three Greek roots and then suddenly a Greek accusative ending appears in a word describing process. By the way, that demands a nominative noun. One little Britlet has written to say there are only 2 Greek roots in the word. Oh? Para (1) + pros (2) +dok (3) + ia (4). Are they not still teaching simple addition at Whitechapel's Wanksome Hall? Technically the 4 parts are morphemes, but 3 of them can also be termed loosely "roots."
The word paraprosdokian was made up by some semiliterate doofus late in the 20th century, then added to lists of rhetorical terms at universities whose departments of classics must have been staffed by brain-dead sluggards and mummified pedagogues.
For Example: Check out this listing by the University of Kentucky:
Paraprosdokian: surprise or unexpected ending of a phrase or series.
*He was at his best when the going was good. Alistair Cooke on the Duke of Windsor
*There but for the grace of God -- goes God. Churchill
The entry above is supported by the:
Division of Classics
Department of Modern & Classical Languages, Literatures, & Cultures
1055 Patterson Office Tower | University of Kentucky | Lexington, KY 40506-0027
ph: 859 257 3761 | fax: 859 257 3743 |
Casselman: And the following foolish footnote subtends the U. of K. nonsense: “This glossary came my way in graduate school at the University of Texas . Chris Renaud gave it to me, and she tells me it originated with Ernest Ament of Wayne State University . I have since used it from time to time in classes and I have added a couple of examples. -- Ross Scaife”
Well, Mr. Ross Scaife, your list reeks of sloppy scholarship. You were hornswoggled by Miss Renaud and I challenge the wizards at the University of Texas Classics Department to show me one single citation for the word paraprosdokian earlier than 1950 CE.
[Apparently in the paragraph above and below, I was addressing the unliving. Mr. Ross Scaife has departed this Vale of Tears and joined the Choir Etymological. Tsk. Tsk. No doubt he died of shame.]
The word is unknown to ancient Greek or Latin rhetoric. It is unlisted in any dictionary of Medieval Greek or Medieval Latin. It is unmentioned in any early English glossary of rhetoric. It is unknown in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. It has never been listed in any edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. In brief, sir, it is a fecal wee wordlet, still brown and moist with fraud’s shit, foisted on lazy readers and indifferent scholars by an amateur wordsmith whose word-coining ability is — mediocrity exemplified.
So, Texas twits, the Greeks did NOT have a word for it.
It is always remarkable how the half-learned flock to what is spurious.
The phenomenon of surprise endings exists; the legitimacy of the word paraprosdokian as a figure in classical rhetoric does not.
I see that there is now a Wikipage devoted to paraprosdokians. Ewwwww! Then it must be legit.
Academic Twaddle & Baloney Disguised as Scholarship
Here is another typical example of stumblebum etymology and of the careless pseudo-scholarship one encounters daily on the internet and in shabby books and unlearned journals. This little gem is from a source that sounds awesomely academic, imposing and sooo grand, namely “The Journal of Medical Speech - Language Pathology, Sept, 2009” by the authoritatively named Leonard L. LaPointe.
In a flighty little article, skimpy in ideas but pompously bloated by the title “Figaro and Paraprosdokian,” L-L-L-Leonard writes this: “Paraprosdokian, for example is a concept most of us are aware of and have been amused by, but the label for this phenomenon has been a bit obscure. Paraprosdokian is derived from the Greek words para ("beyond") and prosdokian ("expectation"), and sure enough, it means something akin to the feature of nearly all punch lines.”
Let me get this straight now, Lennie. We readers, illiterate dunderheads all, we don’t know the big long Greek word for this concept, but, you, Balloon-Brain Most August, you do, eh, fellah? Stercus tauri, Leonard. That’s Latin for ‘shit of the bull.’
By the way, a copy note for you, Leonard, or for the “editors” of this prestigious journal: words in foreign languages quoted as words, especially in an etymological context, are ALWAYS in italics.
Next point, Leonard, the Greek prepositional prefix para is not used spatially here. Therefore it does NOT mean ‘beyond.’ In this made-up, 20th-century monstrous word paraprosdokian, para is used to express emphatic opposition to the meaning of the root word prosdokia. So it denotes that which is ‘contrary to’ expectation. Not 'beyond expectation.' Words have distinct meanings, Leonard.
One of several classical Greek words for expectation, Leonard, is prosdokia. But it is not exactly le mot juste, the word one might borrow in trying to find synonymy with a modern English meaning of ‘expectation.’ Prosdokia, in classical Greek texts, almost always meant ‘a waiting in fear’ for something bad to happen. That is not even close to the semantic milieu you are traipsing through, Leonard. In other words, paraprosdokian is a totally inept accusative Greek form, clumsy to borrow into English, if one were making up a word to mean ‘a statement which violates expectation.’
You, Leonard, don’t know a syllable about classical Greek.
Consequently you have no business airily introducing an error-ridden reference to Greek roots when you obviously are utterly ignorant of everything about them. I have explained above why a form like paraprosdokian could only have been invented by some 20th-century nincompoop pretending that he or she knew classical Greek.
I know you did not coin the word paraprosdokian, Leonard, but you did pretend to a knowledge of Greek which you do not possess. You are a sham, Leonard. Now, go home, sacrifice a duck to Apollo, and learn some Greek, idiot, before you again flaunt a spurious expertise to an audience who will always pop the herniating balloon of your pomposities.
Now, certainly, there are sentences and phrases with surprise endings. Educated people call these: “sentences with surprise endings.”
[ Scroll down for Much Lively Negative Reaction to this piece.]
copyright © 2012 William Gordon Casselman
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Blog Response to the Problem of Paraprosdokians
Sunday, January 30: The A.D.D. Detective
The Docket SUNDAY:
The A.D.D. Detective
PARAPROSDOKIA by Leigh Lundin
Load of Bull? Researching the word [paraprosdokian] brought me to a glossary put forth by the late Professor Ross Scaife of the University of Kentucky , Lexington , who credits Ernest Ament of Wayne State University . Finding a scholarly footing was almost the end of my research, but something about the word troubled me. I slouched through two years of Latin and don’t have enough Greek to fill a retsina amphora, but the word didn’t look like a noun. I turned to Google and …
I found William Gordon ‘Bill’ Casselman who appears to be the Larry Flynt of classical academic publishing: Scholars pretend to be offended by his colourful naked criticism but they can’t help peeking between their fingers. And, he’s almost certainly right, even if he laces his reasoning with personal (or antipersonnel) zingers and scatological descriptions. Also, like Larry Flynt, he heartfeltly digresses into social issues, asbestosis in particular. All in all, probably a guy we’d like.
Among his many books is Canadian Words which, I might indignantly mention, fails to credit my own Can-Am Dictionary. He also writes in English. I started reading his current book, which is witty and fun, the unhyphenatedly titled Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik, found in desperate bookstores everywhere.
I give Bill Casselman air time, not because he’s smart, well-read, and funny (he is), but because he reinforced my brilliantly ill-considered opinion that paraprosdokian doesn’t look like a noun, proper or improper. Omitting his language flourishes that might get us sued or rebuked by the Right Reverend Pontifician Wright, Mr. Casselman says:
"The word (paraprosdokian) appears NOWHERE in ancient Greek literature. It could NEVER be an ancient Greek word with its Late Latin adjectival ending –ian! Nearly every standard term in classical rhetoric, Latin or Greek, takes the form of a noun. But this one, we are asked to believe, is not only adjectival in form, it consists of three Greek roots and then suddenly a Latin adjectival ending appears in a word describing process. By the way, that demands a noun. …
The word is unknown to ancient Greek or Latin rhetoric. It is unlisted in any dictionary of Medieval Greek or Medieval Latin. It is unmentioned in any early English glossary of rhetoric. It is unknown in the 17th , 18th , and 19th centuries. It has never been listed in any edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. …
Certainly, there are sentences and phrases with surprise endings.
Educated people call these: "sentences with surprise endings."
Cool. Stand-up comics call the technique "and then I got off the bus".
Posted by Leigh Lundin in The A.D.D. Detective on January 30th, 2011
Email from Chris Merrell
January 31, 2011
“Paraprosdokian, for example is a concept most of us are aware of and have been amused by, but the label for this phenomenon has been a bit obscure. Paraprosdokian is derived from the Greek words para ("beyond") and prosdokian ("expectation"), and sure enough, it means something akin to the feature of nearly all punch lines.”
Being interested by language enough to research words and their etymology by my own volition, I was pleased to have some insight into the origins of the word 'paraprosdokian.' I felt it appropriate to include the quote above because it was at this point in your online entry that I needed to break from reading and go throw up, nauseated by the indignation and academic vanity that has clearly rendered you incapable of writing your article in a diplomatic, objective fashion.
Let's look at the quote above. LaPointe writes that the word is derived from two Greek words (4 if you're you) and this is surely correct, as to derive one thing from another is simply to draw it from another, and the creator of this word clearly chose to 'derive' his word from these Greek Terms. Maybe the creator of this word travelled back to our time from 51st century Mars, just to hoodwink honest, hard-working scholars such as yourself by forever staining the otherwise immaculate veneer of etymological study with this unconventional term. Regardless of how the word ended up in contemporary rhetoric, were it through voodoo-magic, science-fictionesque word bandits carrying out a plot to corrupt language and foil you, surely the most ethical, honest, hard working, linguist that there ever was.
I will leave you with a simple question, whose etymological nature and correctness of wording can be obsessed over by you intrinsically, which will obviously satisfy you greatly. The intent of your article was not entirely clear: since the first 200 of 1000 words adequately explained the misconception that linguists tend to have about an unusual word (a wrong that should indeed be righted if it has wound up in any University's Classics Department), what was the exact purpose of the last 800? It is apparent that there was no intent other than to flex your literary muscles online, and possibly vent a disproportionately large amount of aggression.
Improving the common perception of linguistic laws is surely a useful cause, however, I argue that flexing one's capacity for verbosity in order to belittle those who likely wanted nothing other than to advance the English language in some marginal way is not.
To quote you: "If you're not a part of the solution, you're part of the precipitate."
Casselman: I wrote Chris back and said “ I am somewhat justly rebuked by your email.”
Thursday, February 3, 2011
Dear Mr. Casselman,
A search for the origins of an improbable-looking word, paraprosdokian, led me to the first piece of your prose I have had the pleasure of reading, "The Bogus Word Paraprosdokian & Lazy Con Artists of Academe." I have just placed an order for Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik, Canadian Words & Sayings, and As The Canoe Tips, and will add more of your titles as I finish these.
I have just retired from a 40-plus year career in book publishing, the
last thirty years spent as director/editor of a number of university
presses, attempting to sort the genuine writers from the "Lazy Con
Artists of Academe." Sad to say, the latter have so over-bred the former that I could no longer see the rare gem in the avalanches of offal that daily swamped my office and desk. I visited your website and spent far too long there; it was a pleasure to meet a real writer through his work.
. . . I revisited the paraprosdokian page, and have finally quit laughing again at “Casselman's Conclusion.” You were not unkind to the "profligate prof-lets." During my years as an acquisitions editor, in rejection letters I often quoted Prof. Moses Hadas, classicist at Columbia University, who wrote a young scholar in response to having been sent the prof-let's first book, "Thank you for sending me your book. I will waste no time reading it."
I know I will enjoy your books. Keep up the good work.
University of New Mexico Press, among others
Email from Scott Enderle
Dear Dr. Casselman
In your essay on "paraprosdokian," you issue a challenge: "I challenge
the wizards at the University of Texas Classics Department to show me
one single citation for the word paraprosdokian earlier than 1950 CE."
Although I have no particular affiliation with the University of
Texas, I thought I'd act to defend their honor. See the below google
search link for a list of "about 32" (actually 21 by my count) such
Furthermore, you claim that "It is unknown in the 17th, 18th, and 19th
centuries." This claim is demonstrably false. See here:
And most intriguingly, here:
which cites Demetrius' On Style as the origin of the term. And indeed,
Demetrius does use a phrase that includes "para" and "prosdokian,"
though not as a compound word:
[Casselman note: Look at paragraph 153 to see the dread phrase.
Demetrios on Style is said to date from c. 300 BCE. It is the only
work of the Athenian orator extant.
Unfortunately it is utterly false --- a fact Scotty-Swotty fails to mention---
Demetrius on Style is the work of a forger
who lived some 400 years after dear Demetrios.
Some scholars say his Greek belongs to the second century CE.
Other scholars place the bogus text much later.
But, in any case, in no way is it a “classical text,” as Scott states.
The page of pseudo-Demetrios below is NOT classical Greek.
It is much much later in the evolution
of the Greek language. Thus in no way can the word
be said to have ANY classical Greek rhetorical authenticity.
In that humble claim, Casselman remains correct.
End of Casselman note]
So although this term may not be in any classical rhetorical
handbooks, it does have a (somewhat strained) origin in a classical
text. In any case, even if you persist in claiming that it is the mere
invention of shoddy scholarship, you'll have to blame the nineteenth
century, not the twentieth.
Scott Enderle, Brizdle-Schoenberg Fellow in the History of Material Texts
Graduate Research Assistant
Penn Humanities Forum
University of Pennsylvania
ANSWER TO SCOTT:
I certainly did not search with due diligence,
but my claim that the word is an oafish monstrosity
with a spurious claim upon ancient authority stands.
January 07, 2012:
After calling me a doofus, Robert Lighthill emailed these two citations of 'paraprosdokian' sent by
"The humourous incongruity and unconscious cynicism of
their utterance, and the paraprosdokian of their dialogue,
with their perilous approach to caricature, all seem to
show that Mrs. Craigie is developing a talent all her own
for rendering bucolic character."
[The Echo (Middx.), 10 Nov. 1896. This is in a long
review (on the front page: different times) of the novel
The Herb Moon, by John Oliver Hobbes, pen name of Pearl
And, in a piece written by Sir Compton Mackenzie three decades
"It is long since I have sat at the feet of this
minstrel; and I quote from memory; but I think another
verse of the same poem thus illustrated the same
paraprosdokian or concluding jerk of disappointment."
[Illustrated London News (London), 18 Jul. 1931.]
Here's a lively response from a good word site called www.LanguageHat.com
January 10, 2012
A reader sent me a link to this invigorating blast by Canadian writer, broadcaster, and lexicographer Bill Casselman (homepage, Autobiohagiography), titled "The Bogus Word Paraprosdokian & Lazy Con Artists of Academe." Now, before going further, I should say that his attack on the "bogus word" is wildly exaggerated; however dubious its origins, it is definitely in use (in the restricted circles that need a word for "a figure of speech in which a sentence or phrase has a surprise ending"). But Casselman admits this, even while giving it another whack as "an oafish monstrosity with a spurious claim upon ancient authority," and there is no point going to him for judicious academic assessments—he's not that kind of writer. He's a loudmouthed, shoot-from-the-hip smartass in the great tradition of Matt Taibbi and my old friend The Growling Wolf; a lot of people are put off by that kind of writing, but I eat it up, and I am glad to have found this guy.
Now, as for paraprosdokian: it is true, as he says, that it "appears NOWHERE in ancient Greek literature" and "was NEVER an ancient Greek word." It is also true that it has, most unusually, an accusative ending. But it is not the case that it "was made up by some semiliterate doofus late in the 20th century, then added to lists of rhetorical terms at universities whose departments of classics must have been staffed by brain-dead sluggards and mummified pedagogues." It was made up by some semiliterate doofus sometime in the nineteenth century (as Casselman acknowledges when presented with the evidence, including a quote from an 1891 issue of Punch: "A 'paraprosdokian,' which delights him to the point of repetition"—note, incidentally, the comma inside the quote mark). And while it is not an Ancient Greek word, it is a simple mashing together of the ancient Greek phrase παρ ὰ προσδοκίαν [para prosdokian] 'beyond expectation,' which (in the words of Messrs. Liddell and Scott, who cite Demetrius of Phalerum, Hermogenes of Tarsus, and Tiberius Rhetor) "is used of a kind of joke freq[uent] in Com[edy]." While one might wish the modern noun had been more elegantly formed, I cannot find it in my heart to hate it as much as Casselman does, but I am glad his hatred produced such a magnificently readable patch of prose.
Posted by languagehat at 09:16 PM | Comments (29)
Um, so para prosdokian is a good Greek phrase, used by ancient authors to mean exactly what it's supposed to mean, but paraprosdokian is "a yahoo’s crude attempt at a bungled classicism"? All this fury over the lack of a space? Another classical phrase about a ridiculus mus comes to mind, frankly.
Posted by Tom Recht at January 10, 2012 10:32 PM
I can only handle loudmouthed, shoot-from-the-hip smartasses if they ride the rail perfectly. The minute they make a dumb mistake (like the claim that para prosdokian has four roots instead of four morphemes), the whole thing just collapses for me, and the rider becomes just another gahonga in a glass gazebo.
Posted by John Cowan at January 10, 2012 11:51 PM
"note, incidentally, the comma inside the quote mark": indeed, even Mr Punch nods.
Posted by dearieme at January 11, 2012 07:07 AM
So much for my heuristic assumption that anything that opaque and polysyllabic ending in -ian will turn out to be an Armenian surname. Are there other examples of prepositional phrases from other languages coming into English as single-unit loanwords? There are certainly some fixed Latin phrases like ad hoc and ex ante which can be used adjectivally in English but are still spelled out as multiple words.
Posted by J.W. Brewer at January 11, 2012 09:21 AM
I applaud the writer's intent, but find myself yawning at his target here. People make up new words all the time based on Greek and Latin roots. That's a good thing. So they get the forms wrong sometimes. Doesn't bother me.
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