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English Language Devices

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

From anaphora to zeugma, here are 26 terms (actually 25, I cheated on one) used to describe literary functions.

Anaphora. The repetition of words or phrases that can give text a lovely, rhythmic flow. Charles Dickens opened A Tale of Two Cities with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity . . .” Through repeating “it was” Dickens tells the reader he is writing about a time of turmoil and contradiction.

Bowdlerize. Thomas Bowdler was an English doctor who found William Shakespeare's writing a bit too bawdy for his taste. So, he and his sister Henrietta cleaned out the saucy bits to produce The Family Shakespeare in 1807. The Bowdlers gave their name to the process of removing “offensive” material from books, plays, movies, etc.

Circumlocution. The use of many words when a lot fewer would serve communication better. In the hands of a skilled politician this device will create long-winded, waffling answers to questions, which, when dissected, mean absolutely nothing.

Dysphemism. The Ancient Greek words of “dys” meaning “bad” and “pheme” meaning “reputation.” So, dysphemism is the use of words designed to trash someone's character. We have had the dubious privilege of living through a period during which a black belt exponent of dysphemism has been amongst us:

  • U.S. President Barack Obama was “The worst president ever.”
  • Senator Lindsey Graham is “A total lightweight.”
  • “How stupid are the people of Iowa?”
  • Germany is a “Total mess.”

And . . . but now it's time for the man that beat him in the 2020 presidential election to have a few words “Will you shut up man?”

Elision. The elimination of a letter or syllable and replacing it with an apostrophe. For example, ne'er-do-well replaces “never-do-well.”

The forecastle of a ship when given the elision treatment becomes fo'c'sle, pronounced FOHK-sal.

The forecastle of a ship when given the elision treatment becomes fo'c'sle, pronounced FOHK-sal.

Foreshadowing. This is a literary device in which a hint is dropped about something that is to come later in a story. In To Kill a Mocking Bird, Atticus Finch describes real courage as “when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” He is giving the reader a warning that he knows his defence of Tom Robinson will fail but he will go ahead because it's the right thing to do.

Gobbledygook. Related to circumlocution, gobbledygook purports to be English but throws in countless bits of jargon to make a communication unintelligible. The word was invented by a Texas lawyer named Maury Maverick who complained that fellow members of the bar were “always gobbledy gobbling and strutting with ludicrous pomposity.”

Hyperbole. Oh crud! He's back. “I am a very stable genius.” “No one knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.” And, the utterer of these and other falsehoods called them “truthful hyperbole” and “an innocent form of exaggeration.”

Idioms. A saying or phrase that is not intended to be taken literally. According to “There are estimated to be at least 25,000 idiomatic expressions in the English language.” A few examples:

  • Kick the bucket;
  • Storm in a teacup; and,
  • The cat's pajamas.

Juxtaposition. Thanks to Merriam-Webster we learn that this is “the act or an instance of placing two or more things side by side often to compare or contrast or to create an interesting effect.” In the greatest movie ever made—Dr. Strangelove— (no arguments please) the opening titles show a menacing B-52 bomber refuelling against the lilting strings of the tune “Try a Little Tenderness.”

Litotes. Using a negative term to make a positive statement. The classic is “Not bad.” In a 1988 vice-presidential debate, Republican Dan Quayle compared himself to former President Jack Kennedy. To which Democrat Lloyd Bentsen responded “Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.” In the corner of the world in which I was raised, Eastern England, an answer to a question such as “How was your holiday in Skegness?” might well be “Fair to bloody middling.”

Malapropisms. Named after the character Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals; it is the use of a similar but incorrect word in a sentence. The previously mentioned Dan Quayle often got tangled up with language. On one occasion he noted that “Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a mother and child.”

Neologism. This is a brand new word entering English. A recent addition is “doomscrolling;” the act of scrolling through bad news on social media, sort of what you are doing right now. “Superspreader,” “Woke,” and “Cancel Culture,” are also newcomers.

Oxymoron. A statement that contains within it a contradiction, such as “jumbo shrimp,” “genuine fake,” and “crash landing.” Oxymorons are also used to ridicule with irony; e.g. “business ethics,” “political morality,” “military intelligence,” or “customer service.”

Paralepsis. Smarty-pants critics use this device by indicating a negative character trait by not mentioning it. “Far be it for me to say anything about his drinking.”

Quocker-wodger. It's at this point that those of us who set out to compile alphabetical lists of anything ask for readers to cut us a bit of slack. So, here we have a splendid word that used to mean a toy that flapped its arms and legs when a string was pulled. The word has been repurposed to describe a politician whose actions are controlled by someone else. Is there any other kind of politician? But, no matter how convoluted the reasoning, the word cannot be twisted into having any grammatical content. Here endeth the digression.

Restaurantese. This is a pretentious brand of English that frequently appears on menus and is usually designed to bamboozle customers into thinking they're getting something they are not getting. “Artisanal,” “ethically sourced,” “farm fresh,” “organically grown,” “handmade,” or “infusion” crop up far more than is reasonable.

Syllogism. This is a form of deductive reasoning in which a specific conclusion is drawn from a general statement. A syllogism has three stages:

  1. A major premise: All cats are mortal
  2. A minor premise: Cleo is a cat
  3. A conclusion: Therefore, Cleo is mortal.
False syllogisms are common. Such as “birds fly/I am a bird/therefore, I can fly.”

False syllogisms are common. Such as “birds fly/I am a bird/therefore, I can fly.”

Tautology. This is saying the same thing twice but using different words. It's said that good writers shy away from using the device by avoiding it. Oops, that was a tautology. Here are some more:

  • Unnecessary redundancy;
  • He died from a fatal dose of heroin; and,
  • We are in close proximity to nearly the end of this frivolity.

Understatement. This is a statement that is the opposite of hyperbole and makes light of something. It's the bedrock of television sitcoms so that when characters emerge from something catastrophic, one of them says “I think that went well.”

Verisimilitude. Having a close similarity to the truth. J.K. Rowling's portrayal of Hogwarts School had a similarity to a British boarding school, minus the curriculum.

Wardour Street English. Wardour Street in London was a place where dealers sometimes passed off reproductions as genuine antiques. The English that sprang from it is the adoption by some people of a phony, archaic version of the language, particularly by those writing historical novels. “Forsooth Lord Algernon dost thou think me a snollygoster?”

Xenoglossy. Again, a request for indulgence from the reader for a little leeway in dealing with difficult letters. Xenoglossy is the supposed ability of some people to speak or write in a language of which they have no knowledge. Note that important word “supposed.” It is connected with mediums and clairvoyants in a trance state.

Yogish. Baseball legend Yogi Berra had a unique relationship with English and he blessed us with:

  • “A nickel ain't worth a dime anymore.”
  • “You wouldn't have won if we'd beaten you.”
  • “Nobody comes here anymore, its too crowded.”
  • “I never said most of the things I said.”

Zeugma. A rhetorical device that modifies two or more words in different ways. The comedy singing duo of Michael Flanders and Donald Swan gave us this zeugmatic gem in their tune “Have Some Madeira, M'Dear:” “She lowered her standards by raising her glass, her courage, her eyes and his hopes.” Or, here's Dickens giving us a example in The Pickwick Papers: “Miss Bolo rose from the table considerably agitated, and went straight home, in a flood of tears and a Sedan chair.”

Groucho Marx gave us the zeugma “Time flies like an arrow fruit flies like a banana.”

Groucho Marx gave us the zeugma “Time flies like an arrow fruit flies like a banana.”

Bonus Factoids

Skotison is a piece of writing or speech that is intentionally confusing, sort of like when you Tweet “Covfefe.”

Tapinosis is denigrating name-calling, as when you label someone a “a stone-cold loser,” “the biggest loser in the history of politics,” “a low I.Q. Individual,” or “Lying Ted and Little Marco.”

Aposiopesis is a rambling, broken sentence and unfinished thought, when you say “Look, having nuclear—my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart —you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world—it’s true!—but when you’re a conservative Republican they try—oh, do they do a number—that’s why I always start off, blah, blah, blah.”



This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

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