My mother was a praeteritio buff. That was the word she used, anyway. Richard Lanham, author of A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, a copy of which has been in my possession since I picked it up at the Fifth Avenue Barnes & Noble (at that time, the only Barnes & Noble), in 1978, prefers “occupatio,” which he defines as follows:
A speaker emphasizes something by pointedly seeming to pass over it, as in introducing a guest speaker one says, “I will not dwell here on the twenty books or the thirty articles Professor X has written, nor his forty years as Dean, nor his many illustrious pupils, but only say … “
By whatever name, Harriet Yagoda got a huge kick out of the fact that this maneuver had a name and a rich tradition. Trying to pass on the torch, I taught my own kids not only about praeteritio, but a bunch of other rhetorical figures as well. My favorite, and the one they seem to have retained, is zeugma, which in Greek means “yoking together.” Lanham’s definition: “One verb governs several congruent words or clauses, each in a different way, as in [Pope's] The Rape of the Lock: ‘Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey,/Dost sometimes counsel take—and sometimes Tea.’” (I am aware that there is some disagreement over the respective definitions of zeugma and syllepsis. On this, as on all things rhetorical, other than praeteritio, I go with Lanham.) Twain used it to good effect in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, writing that Tom and a pugilistic opponent “covered themselves with dust and glory.”
I’ve come to understand that someone, or rather a group of people, shares my fondness for zeugma. I’m referring to New York Times copy editors, who just in the last five months have produced the following headlines:
- “Murray Loses Cool and, Soon, the Match”
- “Fed Contender Seized the Day, and Dollars, in the Private Sector”
- “Stephens Gets Victory and Vote of Confidence”
- “After Mending Swing and Psyche in Minors, the Mets’ Davis Returns”
- “Finding Fairways, and One Pants Pocket, a Swede Finds Himself in Contention” (On this one, I’d suggest going all in with: “A Swede Finds Fairways, One Pants Pocket, and Himself in Contention.”)
- “Celebrity Weeklies Are Reveling in a Royal Baby, and Sales”
- “An Afghan Poet Shapes Metal and Hard Words”
- “10 Late de Kooning Works to Go on View, and on Sale”
- “Rare Homer and a Milestone Power Yankee Comeback”
- “Sharing Bikes and Fury in New York Neighborhoods”
- “Korean Keeps Herself in Fairway and in Lead”
- “Play Resumes, and So Do Mets’ Woes”
- “Braves Beat the Cold and Then the Rockies in Denver”
- “Regaining His Stroke and His Success”
- “No Rest and No Margin of Error for the Rangers”
It’s not only the Times. In my local Philadelphia Inquirer, I’ve recently found “Phils Drop Delmon Young, and Another Game” and “Rookie Owls QB Lost First Start, but Not His Nerve.”
A couple of things are apparent. First the majority of the headlines are for sports stories, which makes sense, as they are usually less than weighty and provide an opportunity for playfulness. A subtle thing is the presence, in some examples, of a comma after the first verb. To me this is the equivalent of the comedian who winks or smirks after a joke, or the “funny” fellow who elbows you in the ribs: They don’t have the courage of their comic convictions.
I certainly don’t begrudge the Times editors their zeugma. Working at the Gray Lady, they aren’t privy to the in-your-face journalese (“Ford to City: Drop Dead”) and rococo puns (“Sick Transit’s Glorious Monday”) of their counterparts on the Post and Daily News. Still, they could enlarge their rhetorical palettes a little bit: There are a lot of great devices out there.
You could try apostrophe. Hyperbole would guarantee a Pulitzer. Litotes isn’t too bad. And what about rhetorical questions?
Not to mention praeteritio.
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