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Cutting a Fine Figure (of Speech)

A figure of speech is defined on dictionary.com as:

noun, plural figures of speech. Rhetoric .
any expressive use of language, as a metaphor, simile,personification, or antithesis, in which words are used in other than their literal sense, or in other than their ordinary locutions,in order to suggest a picture or image or for other special effect.


I have touched on a few in past posts.  We have explored analogies, similes, metaphors, homophones, cliches, malapropisms, spoonerisms, oxymorons, and pleonasms.  That seems like a good list, but what other figures of speech are there? Well, wikipedia lists more than a hundred. There is evidence from some rhetoricians of over 250 different figures of speech.

I think it is interesting to find out what makes our language tick.  Certainly there are figures of speech that you are aware of such as alliteration, hyperbole or non sequitur. Outside of a handful of familiar figures of speech there are scores more that you are surly unaware of. The beauty of it all is that you don’t even have to know one to use one.

Figures of speech are categorized into two main groups: schemes and tropes. Schemes deal with the change in the accepted or expected pattern or order of words, while tropes deal with a change in the meaning of words.

Take for instance anastrophe (pronounced: an-ASS-troh-fee), which is the inversion of accepted word order. Think of Jedi Master Yoda: speaks in anastrophes, he does. The anastrophe falls into the category of schemes.

Synecdohche (pronounced sin-EHK-doh-key) is the use of a part to convey the whole.  If you were to compliment someone’s car by saying “Nice set of wheels.” you would be using a synecdohche. A synecdohche is classified as a trope.

Have I whet your appetite or have you already stopped reading?  If you want more, read on:

An anaphora (an-EH-for-uh) uses a consistent repetition at the beginning of successive sentences or phrases for stylistic reasons or for emphasis.  The opening passage from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities would be a clear example: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” Dr. Martin Luther King also used the anaphora to great effect in his “I Have a Dream” speech, repeating that title phrase in succession a number of times.

Similar to the anaphora is the epistrophe (eh-PIST-row-fee) also known as the epiphora (ee-PIH-for-uh), which uses repetition at the end of a phrase or sentence as in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “of the people, by the people, for the people…”

Symploce (SIM-ploh-see) combines the use of both the anaphora and epistrophe. An example would be from a quote by President Bill Clinton: “When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it.

A paradiastole (pair-uh-die-ASS-toe-lee) is a type of euphemism that is used to make a negative trait or vice appear as a positive one. A car that doesn’t start might be said to have a “quiet engine.” A house that is in need of renovation might be referred to as requiring “some tender loving care” or maybe “has plenty of opportunities for the next owner to put their personal stamp on it.” Someone might describe an unbalanced individual as “eccentric” rather than crazy.

Neologism (nee-ALL-uh-jiz-um) is a newly coined term not yet widely accepted as a common term. The word “google” used as a verb to mean conducting an internet search would have been considered a neologism back in the late 1990s or early 2000s when the search engine giant was still in it’s infancy and the term had not yet been elevated to common use.

And last but not least I include the bacronym (BAK-row-nim) despite it not technically being a figure of speech. I learned about this term earlier this year.  The man who introduced the world to the term via a Washington Post neologism contest back in 1983 was Meredith Williams, the father of my friend and author, Jeniffer Monahan. The bacronym is a reverse acronym where the abbreviation is decided first to form a desired word and the phrase that the acronym represents is tailored to the abbreviation—sort of like the nemonic device we used to learn the names of the planets. For instance in Alcoholic Anonymous’ 12-step program they employ bacronyms as teaching methods for some of the steps: SLIP stands for “Sobriety Losing Its Priority.”

As I mentioned at the start, there are plenty more figures of speech that one can delve into if you aren’t currently asleep and drooling onto your chest.  If nothing else, you can consider yourself armed with enough ammunition to impress friends at your next cocktail party.  Go forth and speak figuratively!

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