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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Figures of Speech

Years ago, it was pointed out to me in a literature class that chiasmus - a figure of speech involving a reversal of terms as in Robert Frost's misanthropic aphorism, "Keep off each other and keep each other off" - literally means crossing, so that this figure of speech can be represented graphically:

The picture looks forbidding with that big crossbar in the middle, but that's Frost's intent.

What would happen if we represented other figures of speech as actual "figures," that is drawn images based on the names they possess.  A parallelism, such as from Tennyson's "Ulysses," "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield..." would be represented by parallel lines.
It looks a little like a flag or a banner, which perhaps Ulysses had on the prow of his ship as he spoke these words.
Not quite so smooth is a non sequitur, literally something that "does not follow."  We think Groucho Marx is making perfect sense until he executes and abrubt right turn in "time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana."


Circumlocution is literally talking in circles.  I can quite recall a line from Schultz's Peanuts comic strip, but Linus says something to the effect of, "That's a terrible feeling to have the feeling of having."



Sometimes we don't speak in circles, but in ellipses.  Ellipsis is when words are left out; this is represented in punctuation by a series of periods...  In geometry, an ellipse also has something left out.  It's like a circle viewed from the side, so it's foreshortened.  It might be an open manhole cover or else a flying saucer.  Either way, it might elicit an elliptical remark.
FLYING SAUCER:



OPEN MANHOLE:


Speaking of conic sections, another is the hyperbola, usually represented by two identical but opposite curves, pointing towards each other.  Is the related figure of speech - hyperbole, a wild exaggeration - so named because the exaggeration points towards the truth before flying off into the opposite direction?
I'M SO HUNGRY, I COULD EAT A HORSE

 A final conic section is the parabola, which is a single curve, named from a Latin word meaning "balance" or "compare."  It's easy to see the relationship between Parabola and Parable, a figure of speech that strikes a comparison.




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