Monday, March 11, 2013


Making the email rounds recently was a collection of sentences supposedly known as paraprosdokians.  They are defined as “figures of speech consisting of a sentence of which the latter part is unexpected, and frequently humorous.” Examples given are:

         “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.”  (Groucho Marx)

         “The last thing I want to do is hurt you—but It’s still on the list.”


         “She was good, as cooks go, and as cooks go, she went.”  (Saki)

Paraposdokian is asserted in these emails to be a word that originated in classical Greek rhetoric, derived from para (“against”) and prosdokia (“expectation”). Some linguists, however, argue that the word is not classical Greek or even medieval Latin, but a modern coinage.

A convincing case against the word’s historical authenticity is made by Canadian linguist William Casselman, who calls it a “bogus word made up by some semiliterate doofus.” He believes it originated in the late 20th century and never appeared in Greek literature. He notes that the word, though used as a nominative, appears in a form that is accusative in Greek—a fact that suggests someone ignorant of Greek grammar cobbled it together. 

Casselman acknowledges that there are, of course, sentences with surprise endings.  He says that linguistic experts refer to these as “sentences with surprise endings.”

Some paraprosdokians (if I may be permitted to perpetuate usage of a dubious word) also change the meaning of the words between the first and last part of the sentence.  The classic example (attributed to Groucho Marx, that champion paraprosdokiast) is:

         “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”

This is a form of pun that can also be called an antanaclasis (“reflection”), of which other classic examples include:

         “If we do not all hang together, we shall all hang separately.”  (Ben Franklin)


         “If you’re not fired with enthusiasm, then you’ll be fired with enthusiasm.” (Vince Lombardi)

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has been fired numerous times, almost invariably with enthusiasm bordering on desperation.  Unfortunately, this blogger is powerless to prevent him from perpetrating his poetic pustules:

         I had a lovely evening
         But this sure wasn’t it.
         The chairs were made of cast-iron,
         And pained me just to sit.

         The smiling host and hostess
         Insisted I’d have fun
         Conversing with their children,
         Aged five, and three, and one.

         They had a German shepherd
         Who slobbered on my knees,
         While baring teeth and snarling,
         And infesting me with fleas.
         The other guests were zombies,
         Addicted to Fox News,
         Insisting that I listen
         To wild Tea Party views.
         The drinks were clearly watered,
         I know that’s true becuz
         I downed at least a dozen
         And never felt a buzz.

         Dinner, said our hostess,
         Would be a little late,
         Perhaps about ten-thirty,
         When we’d been asked for eight.

         And when the food appeared,
         The meat was tough and cold,
         The veggies all were soggy,
         The bread was edged with mold.

          When asked to linger longer,
         I managed to resist
         And made a hasty exit—
         Then tripped and broke my wrist.

         No more boring evenings,
         With bad food, kids, and pets!
         Next time that I’m invited,
         I’m sending my regrets.        

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