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All in good humour with an unexpected sting in the tail

If you want to be witty, one of the cleverest ways is to use paraprosdokians. It's a figure of speech in which the second half of a phrase is surprising or unexpected, with Winston Churchill a master at it, writes Karan Thapar.

columns Updated: Jan 04, 2015 00:16 IST

Has it occurred to you that most of the wit you hear is borrowed from someone else? Few people are actually genuinely funny. They just purloin with great care, add a touch of their own and fail to give credit to the original speaker.

Now if you want to be witty, one of the cleverest ways is to use paraprosdokians. You won't find the word in the Oxford dictionary but it's in Wikipedia. It's a figure of speech in which the second half of a phrase is surprising or unexpected. The sting is in the tail!

I most enjoy paraprosdokians when they're used as a put down. PG Wodehouse's description of a fat woman is devastating: "She looks as though she's been poured into her clothes and forgot to say 'when'." So too Groucho Marx's parting comment to his hostess: "I've had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn't it."

For debaters paraprosdokians are a God-send. Here are a few from the Cambridge Union which are a part of the conventional armoury used for tackling awkward opponents: 'He's a modest man with much to be modest about', 'He's a well balanced person with a chip on both shoulders', and 'Our differences are a case of mind over matter - I don't mind and he doesn't matter'.

Winston Churchill was one of the few politicians who used paraprosdokians to great effect. Often the United States was his target: "You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing - after they've tried everything else." But even Clemenceau, though French, had a knack for it. And guess who his target was? "America is the only country to have progressed from barbarism to decadence without experiencing the intervening stage of civilization."

There's a delightful but possibly apocryphal anecdote about George Bernard Shaw and Churchill, which is entirely based on this delicious figure of speech. The playwright sent the politician two tickets to the first night of one of his new plays. "For you and a friend, if you have one," the accompanying note read. Not a bit put out, Churchill replied, "I can't make the first night but I'll be there for the second, if there is one."

If you like the risque variety, here are two tongue-in-cheek ones about men and women, which might be a trifle sexist but are possibly true. First: "Women will never be equal to men until they can walk down the street with a bald head and a beer gut and still think they're sexy." Second: "Behind every successful man is a woman; behind the fall of a successful man is usually another woman."

Or if you're fed up of television try this: "The evening news is where they begin with 'Good Evening' and then proceed to tell you why it isn't."

Finally, my late cousin Ranjit Sahgal was a master of paraprosdokians. Here are some he used to great effect, often with me as his target:-

'The last thing I want to do is hurt you, but it's still on my list.' 'If I agreed with you, we'd both be wrong.' 'A clear conscience is the sign of a fuzzy memory.' 'Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.' 'I used to be indecisive. Now I'm not so sure.' 'I didn't say it was your fault, I said I was blaming you.' 'To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.' 'You're never too old to learn something stupid.'

Happy New Year!

(The views expressed by the author are personal)