I had to look up the word paraprosdokian in the dictionary when I recently came across the term. Surprisingly, the word wasn’t there—at least not in my desk side Webster’s New World Dictionary. I did better on a Wikipedia search.
The word comes from the Greek and the para part means against. The later three syllables, prosdokian mean expectation. So, a paraprosdokian is a “figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to re-frame or reinterpret the first part.” Paraprosdokians are popular among comedians and satirists. A few examples make the meaning clear.
Groucho Marx: “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.” How often I would have loved to join Groucho in this sentiment.
Homer Simpson: “If I could just say a few words...I’d be a better public speaker.”
Simpson is reminiscent of Winston Churchill’s observation that when he had to speak for an hour, it only took him five minutes to prepare. If he had to speak for five minutes, it took him an hour to prepare.
In fact, Churchill was a paraprosdokian proponent. He used them frequently. Speaking of Clement Attlee—the British Prime Minister from 1945 to 1951—he said, “A modest man, who has much to be modest about.” Referring to Prime Minister Chamberlain and the Munich Pact, he said, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile—hoping it will eat him last.” And concerning the fact that during his career he received the blame for everything imaginable, he said, “Everyone threw the blame on me. I have noticed that they nearly always do. I suppose it is because they think I shall be able to bear it best.”
The reason I’m interested in paraprosdokians is that it’s my type of humor—a smooth intro, then a smasher ending. So when a friend e-mailed me a list of 25 para-whatevers, I looked in my writing folder and sure enough I had a page of paraprosdokians e-mailed to me on August 28, 2010 by the same man who sent me the recent listing in January. I guess we share the same sense of humor. So here are a half dozen favorites on the current list.
- Where there’s a will, I want to be in it.”
- Do not argue with an idiot. He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience.
- The last thing I want to do is hurt you. But it’s still on my list.
- War does not determine who is right—only who is left.
- Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.
- Behind every successful man is his woman. Behind the fall of every successful man is usually another woman.
And the list goes on.
Another reason I like paraprosdokians is that my partner occasionally comes up with one unintentionally. I’ve heard him on more than one occasion—like Senator Larry Craig, or tele-evangelist Ted Haggard—proclaim, “I’m not gay,” Then quickly following, with an arch of the eyebrow and a droop of the wrist, say, “but there are times when I’m moderately festive.” My suspicion is that if we added the count of moderately festive men to the count of gay men we’d have more than a paraprosdokian, we’d have a landslide.
John Siegfried, a former Rehoboth resident, lives in Ft. Lauderdale. His newly published book, Gray & Gay: A Journey of Self-acceptance, is available from Amazon.com and CAMP Rehoboth. Email John Siegfried.