Everybody is familiar with the frustration of thinking up a great comeback but being too late to use it. With the help of rhetoric, however, people can use “prefab wit” and “systematic thinking” to make sure that they always have a good comeback in mind.
Wittiness can’t be taught; however, it’s possible to learn the basic structure of a witty saying and, in the process, learn how to seem wittier.
In ancient Greece, rhetoricians had to learn about figures, also known as “schemes”—i.e., basic structures and patterns for language. Most people still learn some of these schemes, thousands of years later—analogy, metaphor, oxymoron, the rhetorical question, etc. One figure, or scheme, that many people don’t realize is a figure at all is dialogue, or dialogismus, the technique of repeating a conversation for rhetorical effect. Another is the speak-around, or periphrasis, the technique of substituting a description for a proper name. When Prince Charles called a Chinese politician an “appalling old wax works,” he was using periphrasis.
Most people use schemes without really thinking about it—speaking in non-literal terms is a basic part of most people’s lives. But perhaps readers can become more proficient at using schemes to appear witty by first learning about these schemes.
There are three classes of figures: figures of speech, figures of thought, and tropes. To begin with figures of speech, one of the most common is anaphora, or repeating a word or phrase at the beginning of a longer phrase. The King James Bible makes beautiful use of anaphora (“And God …”). Another common figure of speech is diazeugma, which means applying multiple verbs to the same noun (sports announcers do this all the time: “he shoots … misses ... shoots again!”) The idiom—a group of words combined to make a single meaning—is a common figure of speech (referring to someone in trouble as being “in a pickle” involves speaking idiomatically).
Heinrichs gives various figures of speech and examples of them, as he continues to add terms to the rhetorician’s arsenal. Again—even if people use figures of speech without knowing about them, it could be helpful to learn their names and understand their origins.
There are also figures of thought—tactics for using logos and pathos. Throughout this book, Heinrichs has discussed many figures of thought—conceding a point, revealing an attractive flaw, etc. Another example would be using a self-answering question (a la the protester who shouts, “What do we want? Freedom!”). Finally, a trope consists of an image or concept that has been swapped for another. Metaphor is a kind of trope, as is irony, because it swaps real meaning and apparent meaning. Synecdoche is a trope in which a single thing represents many things (e.g., “the White House” can refer to the American executive government). Metonymy is a kind of trope in which a characteristic represents the whole (e.g., calling a red-haired person “red”).
Figures of thought differ from figures of speech insofar as figures of thought represent a different way of conceptualizing a thing, not just phrasing that thing. However, there’s a lot of overlap between figures of speech and figures of thought (for instance, Prince Charles’s phrase, “appalling old waxworks” could well be considered a metaphor, not just periphrasis). Many people confuse synecdoche and metonymy; while they’re closely related, synecdoche involves treating a literal part of a thing as representative of the thing itself.
One useful rhetorical tactic is to take advantage of an opponent’s idioms. In a humorous novel by P. G. Wodehouse, a character says, “She looks as if she was poured into her bathing suit,” to which the other character replies, ‘Yes, and forgot to say ‘when.’” Oscar Wilde was a master of twisting idioms humorously, for example: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.” While few people can be as witty as Wilde or Wodehouse, one easy way to manipulate an opponent’s idioms is to take them literally. If an opponent says, “Let’s not pour the baby out with the bathwater,” you could say, “Let’s just pull the plug.”
A lot of the best humor is based on defying an audience’s expectations. Therefore, it makes a certain amount of sense that twisting idioms and clichés is a surefire way to generate some laughs—the audience is so familiar with the cliché that it appreciates a speaker who can reframe the cliché in an amusing way. Treating idioms literally is also a good way to gain the upper hand in a debate, largely because doing so surprises an opponent and may make them lose control of the debate.
Another time-honored technique for seeming witty is to transform an idiom by switching around the words. Oscar Wilde said, “Work is the curse of the drinking classes.” One of the most elegant ways to switch words is chiasmus, which Heinrichs discussed in an earlier chapter. In a debate, one might say, “It’s not a question of whether we’re cheating the government. It’s whether the government is cheating us”—an elegant way to twist an opponent’s arguments.
Switching around the words in an idiom is amusing for the same reason that taking an idiom literally is amusing—doing so defies the audience’s expectations. Chiasmus is one of the most popular rhetorical techniques—audiences often find it satisfying and memorable to hear a phrase switched around.
It might be difficult to improvise chiasmus, but you can still enliven your conversations by adding puns to chiasmus. If you’re throwing a party for a friend, and happen upon a photograph of him swimming in a pool at the age of two, buck naked, you could write a card that asks, “What kind of party suits Bob’s birthday? The kind where he wears his birthday suit.” Heinrichs admits that this isn’t the snappiest pun, or chiasmus, but adds, “Think you can do it better? Okay, but you’d better do it well.”
Heinrichs’s example of adding puns to chiasmus doesn’t seem especially witty, and he even admits as much. Indeed, many of Heinrichs’s examples of rhetorical concepts are a little disappointing. However, by providing a lackluster example of a witty saying, Heinrich perhaps makes himself seem less intimidating and more “normal,” and encourages his readers to develop their own humorous sayings instead of just copying his.
In rhetoric, one of the most useful figures of thought is dialysis, the weight of two arguments side by side (e.g., when George W. Bush said, “You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists,” he was using dialysis). Dialysis is useful because it offers a succinct comparison between the options. Another figure of thought is epergesis, the technique of correcting one’s speech for rhetorical effect. One might say to a drunken friend, “I’ve never been so embarrassed as I was last night. Actually, I have been that embarrassed—the last time went to a party together.”
Dialysis (not to be mistaken for the medical treatment) is a good example of a logical fallacy that can also be a useful rhetorical device: in reality, there are few choices that boil down to two dichotomous options, but it can be useful to pretend that only these two choices exist. Heinrichs’s discussion of Epergesis reminds readers that some of the most impressive rhetorical maneuvers are designed to seem unrehearsed, emphasizing the speaker’s improvised, off-the-cuff wit.
The litotes is another useful figure of thought; it consists of ironic understatement (e.g., when O. J. Simpson was asked why he was making an appearance at a comic book convention, he ironically replied, “I’m not doing this for my health”). Like many figures of thought, litotes can change the mood of conversation; it tends to make the speaker sound reasonable, especially since hyperbole has become very common. Another figure of thought, climax, or anadiplosis, has the opposite effect: by linking many clauses together, with the last part of each clause the first part of the next clause, a shrewd speaker can build excitement (e.g., the proverb, “for want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for want of a horse the rider was lost”).
Litotes is a useful rhetorical figures of thought in part because it enlists the audience’s participation—to “get” the joke, the audience has to understand that the speaker is using ironic understatement. Like many other figures of thought, litotes can have a discernible impact on an audience’s mood, reminding readers that one of the core goals of rhetoric is controlling the emotional reaction of one’s audience.
Now that Heinrichs has talked about legitimate figures and schemes, he’ll talk about breaking the rules. There’s a technique that Heinrichs calls “verbing” or neologizing, which involves making up new words. Over time, words tend to enter the language because they’re used in a certain way, whether grammarians approve or not. “Contact” and “impact” are often used as verbs, even though they were considered nouns for most of the 20th century.
Too often, books on language and rhetoric portray language as a static concept—something which never changes, or which changes very, very slowly. In reality, language is constantly changing—people use new words until those words eventually become commonly accepted. Ultimately, people—not grammarians—decide what is and isn’t acceptable.
There’s also a name for the technique of stripping a word of all meaning: parelcon (words and phrases like “you know” and “um” are good examples of parelcon). The word “like” has become one of the most common kinds of parelcon. The popularity of “like,” and “you know,” which was more common thirty or forty years ago, says a lot about our society. Just as Heinrichs’ generation was uncertain about its ability to communicate (hence “you know”), the current generation seems reluctant to commit to any definite position (hence “like”).
Here Heinrichs raises the interesting point that one can study a culture by looking at its “filler words”—so that, paradoxically, words that mean nothing actually mean a great deal. However, “like” was also popular with Beatniks and Hippies in the fifties and sixties, somewhat complicating Heinrichs’s point about millennials’ indecisiveness.