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Tuesday, Oct 15, 2019

Shashi Tharoor’s word of the week: Paraprosdokian

Satirists can excel at paraprosdokians: what better way to skew the pretensions of society?

more-lifestyle Updated: Oct 05, 2019 17:17 IST
Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor
Hindustan Times

Paraprosdokian (noun), a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase, or larger statement, is surprising or unexpected, in a way that prompts the reader or hearer to rethink the first part or understand it differently.

My favourite paraprosdokian declares that “the pun is the lowest form of humour – when you don’t think of it first.”

Paraprosdokian comes from two Greek words, “para” meaning “against” and “prosdokia”, meaning “expectation”. The earliest citation in English seems to be in 1891 in a humorous article in Punch: ‘A “paraprosdokian,” which delights him to the point of repetition.’ It is frequently used for humorous or dramatic effect – “I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my father, not screaming and terrified like his passengers” was a famous paraprosdokian of the comedian Bob Monkhouse. Groucho Marx loved using it for its anticlimaxes: “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.” I forget who said “The last thing I want to do is hurt you, but it’s still on the list.”

Paraprosdokians are particularly popular among stand-up comedians: “When I was 10, I beat up the school bully. His arms were in casts. That’s what gave me the courage.” Or “I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn’t work that way, so I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness.” One old favourite is: “Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.” And how about “Always borrow money from a pessimist. He won’t expect it back.”?!

Satirists can excel at paraprosdokians: what better way to skewer the pretensions of society? “She got her good looks from her father; he’s a plastic surgeon.” Or more notoriously: “I can picture in my mind a world without war, a world without hate. And I can picture us attacking that world, because they’d never expect it.” Cuttingly: “When tempted to fight fire with fire, remember that the Fire Department usually uses water.” Memorably: “Going to a temple doesn’t make you a Hindu any more than standing in a garage makes you a car”.

A good use of paraprosdokians is to send up the conventional wisdom people like to inflict on you. “I always take life with a grain of salt -- plus a slice of lemon, and a shot of tequila.” Or “To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.”

Some paraprosdokians not only change the meaning of the first part of an observation, but they also play on the meaning of a particular word, creating a double joke: “War does not determine who is right - only who is left.” Or “I used to be indecisive. Now I’m not sure.” I’m still awed by the brilliance of “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.”

Perhaps the greatest craftsman of paraprosdokians was the immortal P.G. Wodehouse. A mere sentence was not enough for him; his best examples built up slowly and at length. “Myrtle Prosser was a woman of considerable but extremely severe beauty. She . . . suggested rather one of those engravings of the mistresses of Bourbon kings which make one feel that the monarchs who selected them must have been men of iron, impervious to fear -- or else short-sighted.”

And that’s probably enough paraprosdokians for the week. After all, a bus station is where a bus stops. A train station is where a train stops. On my desk, I have a work station….

First Published: Oct 05, 2019 17:17 IST

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