Rhetorical help. And by help I mean do the work for me.
May 4, 2006 5:59 AM   Subscribe

Is there a name for this humorus rhetorical device?

A common rhetorical device I keep running into in blogs, narrations, etc. is when a sentence will end in a word (usually an adjective), and then the next sentence will define that word in either a uniquely specific or sarcastic manner.

Examples:

1. "My mom is the greatest. And by greatest I mean she annoys the frickin' crap outta me."

I guess the word doesn't even need to come at the end of the sentence.

2. "Peace be with you. And by Peace I mean plague and sudden balding."

Typically the formula is: "*word*. And by *word* I mean...."

Is there a name for this type of device?
posted by Smarson to Writing & Language (53 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
excellent question. i had assumed it was more of a pop cultural reference, like from a funny movie in the last 10 or 15 years. looking forward to someone answering this. and by "someone", i mean, not me.
posted by poppo at 6:12 AM on May 4, 2006


Thats what I can't figure out, poppo. Is it a rhetorical device that has been used in movies, or was it used in a movie, then became a rhetorical device that is now ubiquitous?
posted by Smarson at 6:18 AM on May 4, 2006


I'm not sure if it was the first instance, but there was a Family Guy where Brian was watching a stereotypical Sitcom and one of the main characters kept saying:

"Oh, I'll fix your sink, and by fix your sink I mean have sex with you. And by have sex with you I mean..."

The episode was "The Son Also Draws". Here is a link to a clip of the dialogue
posted by chndrcks at 6:21 AM on May 4, 2006


Simpsons, also.
Hello. I'm Leonard Nimoy. The following tale of alien encounters is true. And by true, I mean false. It's all lies. But they're entertaining lies. And in the end, isn't that the real truth? The answer is: No.
-- [3G01] The Springfield Files (1997-01-12)

It's a trope in fairly general use.
posted by grimmelm at 6:31 AM on May 4, 2006


I think this is a fairly recent figure of speech—it's quite possible that grimmelm has cited the first usage.

I suspect it's an outgrowth of politicians backtracking, or their aides backtracking for them: remember during the Reagan administration "what the president meant to say was..."

Assuming it is recent, we can make up our own damn name for it. "Self-qualifying statement with negation" is a bit verbose. I'm sure someone with a decent command of Latin could come up with a term that sounds like something taught in rhetoric class, with a meaning along the lines of "the platypus that eats its own egg."
posted by adamrice at 6:40 AM on May 4, 2006


The Simpsons was certainly the first place I heard it, and when I use that trope, that's what I'm referencing. Of course, this doesn't preclude someone having come up with it earlier.
posted by Johnny Assay at 6:41 AM on May 4, 2006


That specific Simpsons episode is what sparked the disscusion which has brought me to my trusted resource "The Filter." Definitely a trope, but is there a name for it? If not, got any good suggestions for one?
posted by Smarson at 6:42 AM on May 4, 2006


Here's an SNL skit that inverts the device:
"Thanks, Adele. I'm going to tell you something. You're very bad at innuendo."
posted by horsewithnoname at 6:47 AM on May 4, 2006


It's not unlike the late 80's "verbal meme" of saying "NOT" after a sentence, popularized by SNL. But fancier.
posted by GuyZero at 6:48 AM on May 4, 2006


It's sort of like operator overloading, only with speech, no?
posted by ludwig_van at 6:49 AM on May 4, 2006 [1 favorite]


That specific Simpsons episode is what sparked the disscusion

There is an earlier one (at least, I think it's earlier):

Hutz: Uh-oh, we've drawn Judge Snyder.
Marge: Is that bad?
Hutz: Well he's had it in for me ever since I kind of ran over his dog.
Marge: You did?
Hutz: Well replace the word "kind of" with the word "repeatedly" and the word "dog" with "son"
posted by yerfatma at 6:51 AM on May 4, 2006


SNL: The Ladies Man

Helen Hunt: You said we would have dinner and a movie.

Ladies Man: When I said dinner, I meant we'd be havin sex, and when I said movie, I meant we'd be videotaping it.
posted by tadellin at 6:58 AM on May 4, 2006


It sounds to me like Humpty Dumpty in "Through the Looking Glass".
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:00 AM on May 4, 2006


I love that skit! Yes, I'd say that falls into the same device. Any stabs at nameing this thing?
posted by Smarson at 7:05 AM on May 4, 2006


Just to head off further references to irrelevant things like Humpty Dumpty: this is not about the general idea that words can be used to mean their opposites, or in other bizarre ways, it's about a specific rhetorical trope, fully described in the original question. The Simpsons episode grimmelm cites is relevant; the one yerfatma cites is not. It has to have the phrase "by ... I mean" in it.
posted by languagehat at 7:08 AM on May 4, 2006


Interesting Google search. And by that I mean it doesn't really answer your question.
posted by Roger Dodger at 7:14 AM on May 4, 2006


Oh, and there's not going to be a traditional name for it, because it's not a traditional trope. If you want a nice, sonorous classical-sounding word, I propose plastonymy, which would be Greek for 'creating a fabricated name [i.e., meaning].' It's never been used (I checked the OED and Google), so it's free for the taking.
posted by languagehat at 7:17 AM on May 4, 2006


"Expedition to Lake Pahoe"?
Sir John: Ah, hello. Well first of all I'd like to apologize for the behaviour of certain of my colleagues you may have seen earlier, but they are from broken homes, circus families and so on and they are in no way representative of the new modern improved British Navy. They are a small vociferous minority; and may I take this opportunity of emphasizing that there is no cannibalism in the British Navy. Absolutely none, and when I say none, I mean there is a certain amount, more than we are prepared to admit, but all new ratings are warned that if they wake up in the morning and find toothmarks at all anywhere on their bodies, they're to tell me immediately so that I can immediately take every measure to hush the whole thing up.
posted by yz at 7:17 AM on May 4, 2006


Excellent find, yz! You've taken it back to January 1972. I hereby emend my previous comment: it has to have the phrase "by [or equivalent, like "when I say"] ... I mean" in it.
posted by languagehat at 7:23 AM on May 4, 2006


It's a particular snowclone. There are thousands of them, though, so you won't find specific names for each other than the general form that you've already identified ("X, and by X I mean Y").
posted by mendel at 7:24 AM on May 4, 2006


O/T but FYI: the "typical sitcom" referenced above (with the "fix your dishwasher/have sex") was based on "One Day At A Time" ca 1975/6/7. The superintendent of the building, Schneider, fancied himself quite a ladies man.
posted by davidmsc at 7:28 AM on May 4, 2006


Maybe it's simply "defining your terms".

"In the first place, Herodotus, you must understand what it is that words denote, in order that by reference to this we may be in a position to test opinions, inquiries, or problems, so that our proofs may not run on untested ad infinitum, nor the terms we use be empty of meaning. For the primary signification of every term employed must be clearly seen, and ought to need no proving; this being necessary, if we are to have something to which the point at issue or the problem or the opinion before us can be referred."
posted by smallerdemon at 7:32 AM on May 4, 2006


So it's officially un-named, but has an origin as early as 1972. Wow...who knew?

Possible names thus far:
plastonymy
posted by Smarson at 7:39 AM on May 4, 2006


The Simpsons episode grimmelm cites is relevant; the one yerfatma cites is not. It has to have the phrase "by ... I mean" in it.

I saw that objection coming, but I think the example is a useful one if you accept it as an earlier step in the evolutionary chain (assuming The Simpsons is the origin of the form. If you want to call "By X I mean -X" a rhetorical device, I think you need to simplify things a bit; it's really just a concrete example of the underlying concept of a joke taken to the extreme. Humor relies on the idea of suprise or the unexpected. This form is kind of the ultimate version of that. Or very lazy, depending on your perspective. And by lazy, I mean "wonderful".
posted by yerfatma at 7:52 AM on May 4, 2006


You can't adequately answer this question with a Google search. It has almost certainly been used for centuries, in material that's not searchable on the open Web.
posted by Hildago at 8:29 AM on May 4, 2006


It's a particular snowclone.

No it's not. A snowclone is a misunderstanding of a preexisting word/idiom; this is not.

Maybe it's simply "defining your terms".

No it's not. It's a joke.

it's really just a concrete example of the underlying concept of a joke taken to the extreme

So? You might as well say "it's just a sentence." The poster is not interested in reducing it to a particular form of something that has a name (like "joke" or "sentence"), he wants a name for this particular trope, with the exact wording specified.

It has almost certainly been used for centuries

You're kidding, right? You think Shakespeare, say, was fond of joshing the guys down at the tavern by saying "...and by 'play' I mean 'ham sandwich'"? I'll be very surprised if it goes back farther than the '50s. And by "'50s" I mean the 1950s.
posted by languagehat at 9:41 AM on May 4, 2006


he wants a name for this particular trope, with the exact wording specified

Ok, sorry for not helping in the languagehat-approved way. Jesus, turn down the volume, O Defender of Ask Me's purity and light.
posted by yerfatma at 10:03 AM on May 4, 2006


I assumed that it had its roots in Vaudeville, as part of a Patter Act.
I have squat to back it up, other than the fact that the wisenheimerness of the device would fit seamlessly in Milton Berle's, Bob Hope's, or The Marx Brothers' shticks.

posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:04 AM on May 4, 2006


Well, there are a number of similar things like "misplaced modifiers" that improper placement or arrangements of words make something you're actually trying to explain sound completely different, such as a recent Digg'd article about a calf genetically modified to resist mad cow disease, being a "mad cow resistant calf" possibly being interpreted as a "mad, cow-resistant, calf". I would propose a namesake being "misstated metaphor" or something like that where the person making the statement thinks that the terminology is un-obvious enough that it requires an explanation. Proposals...

Misstated Metaphor,
Coupled Colloquialism,
Supplied Synecdoche,
Expounded Euphemism,
Translated Trope,
Inadvertent- (thus requiring explanation) or Illustrated Idiom
Provisionary Parlance,
Vended Vernacular,
Furnished Familiar...
or perhaps even just Anbytropimean ("And by trope I mean" -- which sounds more like something you take for a headache)

P.S. I had always remembered "colloquialism" to mean a term used by a comparatively limited group of people and accepted as meaning something in particular and being accepted as correct within that group within a pre-established language (such as the way some pronounce "ask" as "aks" and is accepted as correct) -- but the dictionary doesn't seem to imply that specifically, it seems.
posted by vanoakenfold at 10:20 AM on May 4, 2006


I'd call it the filmgeek trope, and by filmgeek trope, I mean, I think it's undefined as yet, but I just claimed it.
posted by filmgeek at 10:34 AM on May 4, 2006


I agree with Alvy Ampersand's intuitions, but have too scant a knowledge of vaudeville to back them up specifically.
posted by furiousthought at 11:04 AM on May 4, 2006


If the stories about the inventor of the sandwich are to be believed, Shakespeare would have been dead before the invention of the term 'ham sandwich'. For pointing this out, I admit that I'm being a pedantic dick.
posted by horsewithnoname at 11:29 AM on May 4, 2006


And by dick, I mean weasel. See knob.
posted by horsewithnoname at 11:31 AM on May 4, 2006


Languagehat - your guidance is always appreciated

Hildago - your candor is equally appreciated

vanoakenfold - +10 pts. for excellent use of alliteration
posted by Smarson at 12:29 PM on May 4, 2006


Alvy: Vaudeville is certainly a possibility, and I was probably too hasty in thinking the '50s was as far back as it went. I wonder if there are any searchable databases that include such material?

Ok, sorry for not helping in the languagehat-approved way.

Oh, give me a fucking break. It's not my way, it's mathowie's way. See that part down there where it says "Please limit comments to answers or help in finding an answer"? Sure you do. You weren't giving an answer, you were undermining the question and making it less likely the questioner would get a useful answer, and I pointed it out.

Yes, languagehat, that's exactly what I meant

Ooh, sarcasm! The "Shakespeare" part was a joke, in case I need to spell that out. What you said, in the exact manner you said it, was "It has almost certainly been used for centuries, in material that's not searchable on the open Web." Would you care to explain which centuries you're talking about, and how you come by this near-certainty?

something like that where the person making the statement thinks that the terminology is un-obvious enough that it requires an explanation

No, the point is that the person using the trope isn't "explaining" anything, he's making a joke.

but the dictionary doesn't seem to imply that specifically

That's because your idea is mistaken. A colloquial expression is one that's used, usually by a lot of people, in informal circumstances. Automobile is the formal word; car is colloquial.
posted by languagehat at 12:36 PM on May 4, 2006


I would say 'ironic exergasia'.

http://rhetoric.byu.edu/Figures/E/exergasia.htm
posted by felix at 3:58 PM on May 4, 2006


Another cite, from Futurama: Bender says, "...you may have to metaphorically make a deal with the devil. And by devil, I mean Robot Devil. And by metaphorically, I mean get your coat."

Perhaps it could be called "Deconstructed Irony." It seems to be used mostly in cases where there is already clear irony (eg, it's obvious from the leering tone of the speaker who says "I'll fix your sink, and by fix your sink I mean have sex with you" that he intends the "fix your sink" to be lewd innuendo).
posted by ROTFL at 4:19 PM on May 4, 2006


How about "humourous clarification?"

Gilles Deleuze deals with this trope in his book, The Logic of Sense, which takes up Lewis Carroll's work in the name of the philosophy of language (specifically some Wittgensteinian and Heideggerian games.) In the "The Seventh Series on Esoteric Words," [by which he means chapter 7] he describes a structure that looks like this: "X, that is, Y." The funny thing about it is that the process of naming this structure threatens to fall into the structure itself.

Deleuze goes on to perform this operation a number of times, finally settling on an exemplary "portmanteau word": snark. By snark, Carroll means both snake and shark, and Deleuze will argue that all language is ultimately determined within analogous "ramifications of series." That is, every word admits of further definition. By which I mean that even a fully clear word, like an onomatopeoia, can always admit of further elucidation, either clarifying it or confusing it.

Language, Deleuze will argue, comes from the freedom to produce sense and nonsense, equally. What I have called the "humourous clarification" could be simply a nonsensical definition, yet in the context, it produces an ironic veneer of sense.

In this sense, rigrous definition of the trope goes back at least to 1969, when Deleuze wrote Logique du sens, and its use goes back to Carroll, who was writing this way in the 1870s. If we were more devoted, we might well find an example from Shakespeare. After all, it's exactly this form of ramification that constitutes language. And by that, I quite literally have no idea what I mean any longer.

Read the rest of Deleuze's book, if not for clarification of what I have said, at least for brilliance and fun.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:38 PM on May 4, 2006


Ack. Felix nails it with exergasia. (And Deleuze says so himself, in Difference and Repetition.)
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:09 PM on May 4, 2006


Hmmmm, all good suggestions. But what about distinctio? Could one even get away with dystinctio?
posted by Smarson at 6:24 PM on May 4, 2006


You weren't giving an answer, you were undermining the question and making it less likely the questioner would get a useful answer, and I pointed it out.

Again, thank you for making sure I didn't ruin the world. Turn down the rhetoric, lest people mistake you for a complete hard-on.
posted by yerfatma at 6:39 PM on May 4, 2006


Ooh, sarcasm! The "Shakespeare" part was a joke, in case I need to spell that out.

If you have to spell it out, it's not much a joke. It comes off as just being glib and dismissive.

And maybe I should explain why I'm putting my money on this trope being older than Family Guy, The Simpsons, 1972, or Vaudeville. I say this because you asked, and because Smarson's politeness makes me a little ashamed for being, myself, glib and dismissive.

Two main reasons:

1. There is nothing inherently modern about the humor or wording of this joke, and it seems to me that unless that were the case, it's best to assume it's been thought of before.

2. Threads like this tend to begin with people just shooting from the hip, and assuming that the first time they heard a word must have been around the time it was first used [apparently The Simpsons invented comedy rather than merely perfected it]. Google searches just reinforce this fallacy by giving an illusion of legitimacy without actually adding to the research very much (What I mean is, Google doesn't look back very far in time, as you know). So in this sense I was actually just predicting that somebody would come along who had looked back a little further and could give a more perspicacious answer (perhaps that's anotherpanacea in this case, perhaps not).
posted by Hildago at 6:41 PM on May 4, 2006


From the link given and the Wikipedia on exergasia, that does not sound like what we're talking about at all. I think distinctio is much closer, as it explicitly refers to "by X I mean Y", though for purposes of clarifying rather than joking. Maybe the term for the joke described in the question here would be "humorous/ironic distinctio".
posted by SuperNova at 6:54 PM on May 4, 2006


Adding another data point to the mix: I first heard this particular expression used in 1998. I only knew one guy who said it back then. These days, everyone's saying it.

And yeah, I second humorous/ironic distinctio.
posted by limeonaire at 8:37 PM on May 4, 2006


If the stories about the inventor of the sandwich are to be believed, Shakespeare would have been dead before the invention of the term 'ham sandwich'. For pointing this out, I admit that I'm being a pedantic dick.

If this post is actually a veiled and clever dig at another poster, and by "I" you mean "languagehat", then: well done.
posted by soiled cowboy at 9:35 PM on May 4, 2006


Dystinctio (as distinct from distinctio) is terrific. And by terrific I mean, I wish I had thought of it.
posted by zanni at 3:01 AM on May 5, 2006


Nobody will ever read this comment. But Hidalgo makes a very interesting point: that every rhetorical figure is present in history now.

As an example, back in the bad old 80s-90s, it was pretty popular to use 'NOT!', as in, "yeah, that dress looks good on you...NOT!". Kids everywhere were giddy with the enthusiasm of having created a new rhetorical trope with which to annoy their parents.

But one day, I was reading a dictionary of 17th and 18th century thieves' and beggars' cant, and I stumbled across an entry for "bender". It turns out that "bender", meaning "I reverse the meaning of the previous!", was used in exactly the same manner by cutpurses and ruffians in London back before organized medicine. "Verily, that dress is most fetching...bender!"

Again, nobody will ever read this, and this tiny gem of historic linguistic amusement will now fade, dulling into the ultrafast cold platters of a hard disk like the last embers of a bonfire on the beach. Idea! I release you!
posted by felix at 9:33 AM on May 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


Nobody will ever read this comment.

I did.
posted by yz at 11:01 AM on May 5, 2006


Again, nobody will ever read this, and this tiny gem of historic linguistic amusement will now fade, dulling into the ultrafast cold platters of a hard disk like the last embers of a bonfire on the beach. Idea! I release you!

I've committed it to memory, so that if they ever burn all the books, I'll be able to carry it into the future.
posted by Hildago at 5:07 PM on May 5, 2006


Nobody will ever read this comment.

I know I didn't.


BENDER!!!
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:23 PM on May 5, 2006



posted by soiled cowboy at 8:22 PM on May 5, 2006


This thread is quite well-worn by now, but I had to add a contribution that my office-mate wanted me to pass along. He suggests two possiblilities for naming the rhetorical device in question, since none of the previously-existing words suggested above seem to work quite right:

"Retractaphor"
"Inverticism"

posted by dammitjim at 12:40 PM on May 9, 2006


Hopelessly late to the party, but I have to dispute the origin of the described rhetorical device as either the 1950's or vaudeville.

It sounded like the sort of thing Mark Twain would say, and in fact he did at least once. Pulling one of his quotes off the Internet -- suspect I know, but verified by an Amazon search inside the The Autobiography of Mark Twain -- he used a turn of phrase which matches your definition of the device, albeit without the more absurdist aspects of the word redefinition:

"Humor must not professedly teach, and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever. By forever, I mean thirty years."

If you allow more slack and leeway on the form, Twain also had this gem in Life on the Mississippi:

"Observe, now, how history becomes defiled, through lapse of time and the help of the bad memories of men. Jimmy Finn was not burned in the calaboose, but died a natural death in a tan vat, of a combination of delirium tremens and spontaneous combustion. When I say natural death, I mean it was a natural death for Jimmy Finn to die."

Still follows the rough "by x I mean y" idea. Frankly, I suspect immediately redefining words after they are used to humorous effect is an ancient technique predating Mark Twain by centuries. The latest modern usage is simply a refinement.
posted by mdevore at 9:51 PM on May 11, 2006


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