Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Old Skeletons and Broken Skulls

New York City, 2014
In a 1966 love letter to Hoki Tokuda, Henry Miller offered his support should she need someone to talk with or a shoulder to cry on; he did so by using a beautiful and dusky metaphor: "Here we fix broken skulls and rewire old skeletons".

A whole array of figures of speech have been used by writers and speakers to express concepts and feelings that, if laid out through a simple and ordinary language, would sound dull and unoriginal.
Language, whether it be written or spoken, must employ rhetoric to give a meaning some tints of irony, sarcasm, disbelief, warning, or are just used for the sake of style, or taste. Many among us might not know what a metonymy or a synecdoche are, but they employ them every single day, more or less aware of the effects they create and unaware of how they are created. 

Jack Keroauc described how he had "made the bed bounce" with a prostitute in Mexico City back in 1949, making the image a particularly sexual and raw one. Pablo Neruda's comparative simile, on the other hand, can hardly be equaled in terms of romanticism and affectionate sweetness when he ends a poem with one of his most famous verses: "I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry tree".
Dante Alighieri, overwhelmed by the sad and sorrowful story of Paolo and Francesca in the Circle of the Lustful, "fell, even as a dead body falls", and that simile (Dante is by antonomasia the master of similes) truly conveys what heaviness caught hold of his body and soul in that moment.

Some interesting figures of speech came from my many professors of philosophy. One of them, trying to amuse us with an anecdote from his student years, told us how he was always reproached by his teachers for being always late at school; until one day, at the question why he was always in class ten minutes late, he replied: "I'm late because not all clocks show exactly the same hour". A brazen example of sarcasm.
My teacher of philosophy in high school, before leaving on a school trip, uttered what was a friendly recommendation which contained the beautiful tints of a refined word to the wise: "I won't even mention - mind the praeterition - that you should behave as the grown men you are, which means you have to be polite, not loud, and considerate."

Analogies, hyperboles, the many types of fallacies, oxymorons, syllepses are just few of the many figures of speech we can use and, as you can see, all of us make ample use of them.

I have many favorites, but I love the humor behind a praeterition or a tautology.

Do you have a favorite rhetorical device?



  1. Great post, Jay. Irony is my preferred device, though I'm always pleasantly startled when the old subconscious throws up a word or phrase that shouldn't work but does

  2. I'm very fond of puns, as well!

  3. Mike,
    The old subconscious is irony, sarcasm, cynicism, etc. bursting out when no one expects it! And the results are sometimes deflagratingly powerful!

    I like puns too.
    I should have included "understatements" in the article, but it came up too late!