Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Last Thing I’d Do Is Hurt You, But It’s Still on the List

It has been explained to me that comedy is the byproduct of a subversion of expectations. For example, if you watched a woman get ready for a lunch out with her charity club, and you saw her meticulously style her hair, apply her make-up and slide on her best jewelry, and then as she was stepping out her front door, an angry bear charged her, seized her and shook her like a doll made from loose scrap meats, you’d be laughing uncontrollably. Because of all the possible conclusions to this woman’s afternoon, getting dismembered by a whirling fury of ursine claws was at best the fifth most-likely outcome you would have imagined. To think — that she spent all that time getting dressed! That bear wouldn’t have cared if she had just worn sweats! She would have died anyway!


All that said, here is today’s word of the week.
paraprosdokian (PAIR-uh-prose-DOKE-ee-un) — noun: a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected, often in a humorous manner.
This definition from Wikitionary isn’t the clearest, but paraprosdokian can be more easily defined with examples. Here is one that I’d heard previously.
“If I could just say a few words, I’d be a better public speaker.” — Homer Simpson
I thought it was just a joke, but now I know there’s an awkward Greek word for it. And now it’s funnier than ever, because comedy always seems funnier once you’ve analyzed it. Here, read a few more examples:
“If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.” — Dorothy Parker
“She looks as though she’s been poured into her clothes, and forgot to say when.” — P.G. Wodehouse
She got her good looks from her father; he’s a plastic surgeon.” — allegedly Groucho Marx, though there’s a tendency for the internet to credit Groucho with sourceless funny quotes to the point that he, Mark Twain and Winston Churchill apparently said every funny thing ever
This figure of speech works like a garden path sentence, but rather than the goal being grammatical confusion — “The horse raced past the barn fell” or “The old man the boat” — a paraprosdokian makes the double meaning obvious. Any half-witted person would immediately see that the instinctive reading of the text was wrong. And then they would laugh. Oh, how they could laugh. I’m not clear exactly how paraprosdokian differs from syllepsis, examples of which seem to crack jokes in exactly the same manner as paraprosdokians. I mean, do you see a difference between the above examples and this verified Groucho Marx quote from Duck Soup? “You can leave in a taxi. If you can’t get a taxi, you can leave in a huff. If that’s too soon you can leave in a minute and a huff.” I guess that example comprises three sentences, not one, but seems like a negligible difference. It’s also hard to spot the difference between paraprosdokians and wellerisms — “‘Simply remarkable,” said the teacher when being asked her opinion of the new dry-erase board.”

The confusion may arise from the fact that paraprosdokian’s status as a word is debated. And that’s silly, because I’m using it now, and I’ve explained what it means, and it’s obviously a functional word. But not everyone agrees. Bill Casselman decries paraprosdokian as a “bogus word” whose slapdash construction — the Ancient Greek roots para, “against,” and prosdokia, “expectation,” but inexplicably rendered in English in the accusative case — indicates that it’s not an authentic Greek noun. Also, it is not a word the Ancient Greeks would have used. However, Languagehat points out that although the paraprosdokian never pops up in any Greek text as a single word, para prosdokian does, and the word minus that single, offending space appeared in a 1891 edition of the English humor magazine Punch.

I guess it just proves that the person who splits hairs when it comes to determining the validity of words will only end up [insert witty, snappy conclusion here before posting — some pun on splitting hairs maybe?]

Previous words of the week after the jump.

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