Happy birthday, Dale

One of the treasures of 2019 was an acquaintance with the word paraprosdokian. None of my online dictionaries has it, but Wikipedia—bless their hearts—has this.

A paraprosdokianis a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence, phrase, or larger discourse is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part.

Not only that, but they suggest an etymology as well.

“Paraprosdokian” comes from the Greek “para”, meaning “against” and “prosdokía”, meaning “expectation”.

When it appeared in my Word-A-Day calendar, it came with this example from Groucho Marx: “I’ve had a lovely evening. This wasn’t it.”

paraprosdokian.jpgParaprosdokian is a noun as you see—“A paraprosdokian…is a figure of speech”—although it looks like it ought to be an adjective. When I got accustomed to it, I began to notice that my favorite greeting cards are built on this model. The cover suggests one meaning, but the facing page, when you open it, contradicts the expectation you were led to develop.

There are lots of perfectly good cards where the second comment clarifies or extends the sentiment on the cover. Nothing wrong with them. But I like the others better. Here are some examples.

Cover: “They don’t make ‘em like you anymore.”

Implication You are notable or superior in some way.

Inside: Heck, I don’t think they even carry the parts!

Implication: You are so far out of date that even simple repairs will not be possible.

I loved it. Bette’s youngest sister send me that as a birthday card this year. The implication of the cover is definitively contradicted by the clarification inside. It seems that I am being told that I am not one of the shoddy modern models, but one of the sturdy classic models, only to be told that I am too far out of date to repair. [1]

Here is a second wonderful birthday wish featuring paraprosdokian.

Cover: Everyone gets to be young once.

Implication: I have done something or am about to do something that can be excused on the grounds that it is “being young” and that I deserve to be excused for whatever it was I did.

Inside: Your turn’s over.

Implication: What was future in the setup is part of the past in the resolution. [2] There was a time, apparently when my behavior might be understood and excused by reason of my youth, but that time has gone and I need now to face reality.

I think greeting cards are just getting better and better. Thanks to those of you who sent me cards featuring paraprosdokian.

[1] This is, in fact, why I try never to get more than two operating systems behind on my phone and my computer. You get too far behind and the transitions to the “new and better” get tricky.
[2] I learned, in looking for where the accent mark falls in denoument, (as an English word, it doesn’t have one; as a French word it is dénoument) that the word I really wanted was “resolution” and that a resolution is not the same as a denoument. Who would have thought?

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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