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Friday, December 2, 2011

Hysteron Proteron, December, Figures of Speech

During December, I'll be blogging about unusual figures of speech.

Hysteron Proteron is one I was trying to recall over Thanksgiving during a conversation with my sister Chris.  It comes from two Greek words meaning, "latter before."  (An oxymoron similar to preposterous, "before after.")  The idea is that the normal sequence of events is reversed, as in this example from The Arte of English Poesie  "My dame that bred me up and bare me in her wombe."  But frankly, that's a rather watery example, which perhaps explains why Hysteron Proteron, in spite of its cool name, is used so infrequently: it's hard to find occasion to do it, and even harder to do it in a way that seems interesting and not merely careless, as in the typical example you may have heard, "Put on your shoes and socks." Another is the commonly used, "to and fro."  Think about it, you don't really go, "to and fro," it's "fro and to."  Usually, it just comes out as nonsense, as in this headline from the Huffington Post, "Muammar Gaddafi Killed, Captured In Sirte."  However, in expert hands like Woody Allen's, with his almost vaudevillian sense of a punchline it can create a little masterpiece of incoherent fury: "I'm going to kill that magician. I'll dismember him and then I'll sue him."  Dante, lacking Allen's stand-up experience, fails to get the laugh, but manages to convey to super-rapidity of an arrow's flight:

“Beatrice gazed upward and I gazed on her;/ And in the time perhaps it takes an arrow/ To strike the bull’s-eye, fly, and leave the bow…”  Less certain is the purpose of Shakespeare's line from Antony and Cleopatra, "The Antoniad, the Egyptian admiral, with all their sixty, fly and turn the rudder."  Is Antony's retreat meant to be so rapid that he's actually in flight before he thinks to turn rudder, like one of those Warner Brother Cartoons where the Coyote plummets off a cliff, but his head is briefly left behind, his neck stretching to it like a hyper-extended rubberband?  Or is just that "turn the rudder and fly," was too iambically uninteresting?

Still taking answers for November 30th Stoopid Contest.  New Contest December 31st!

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