You won’t find the word in the Oxford dictionary but it’s there in Wikipedia. Paraprosdokians is defined as a figure of speech in which the second half of a phrase or sentence is surprising or unexpected. It can be a clever form of wit or a neat way of making a dig.
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 godsend. 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 quarrels are a case of mind over matter — I don’t mind and he doesn’t matter’.
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 civilisation.”
There’s a delightful but possibly apocryphal anecdote about George Bernard Shaw and Winston 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.”
My cousin Ranjit, who spends his life researching the ephemeral and the obscure, has sent me a joyous collection of paraprosdokians. They’re the sort you could use in 2012. So memorise a few and wait for the first good opportunity! Here they are:
‘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.’
But here’s a special one for all of you fed up of television: ‘The evening news is where they begin with ‘Good Evening’ and then proceed to tell you why it isn’t.’
Let me leave you with a few tongue-in-cheek truths about men and women which might be a trifle sexist but they’re also largely 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.”
Happy New Year — and, remember, after today it won’t be new, it may not be happy but it will last a year!
The views expressed by the author are personal