The Word for Today: Paraprosdokian

Dave AvatarKnowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit: wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad. This sentence is an example of a paraprosdokian.

Look the word up in your dictionary: “p-a-r-a-p-r-o-s-d-o-k-i-a-n.” If you can find it, let me know where you found it. I tried, and I can’t find it in any traditional dictionary, including the Oxford English Dictionary, which I rely on as my my trusted reference work for the meaning of words. I was able to find a definition in the Urban Dictionary, a web-based, online dictionary, originally intended as a dictionary of slang or cultural words or phrases not typically found in standard dictionaries, but now used to define any word or phrase. According to the Urban Dictionary, paraprosdokian is:

The term for a figure of speech in which a sentence or phrase has an unexpected or surprising ending. Often used for humorous effect, and thus heavily used by comedians.

I prefer the definition I found in Wikipedia:

paraprosdokian /pærəprɒsˈdkiən/ 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 reframe or reinterpret the first part. It is frequently used for humorous or dramatic effect, sometimes producing an anticlimax. For this reason, it is extremely popular among comedians and satirists. Some paraprosdokians not only change the meaning of an early phrase, but they also play on the double meaning of a particular word.

According to Wikipedia, the word  comes from the Greek “para“, meaning “against” and “prosdokia“, meaning “expectation”. Canadian linguist and etymology author William Gordon Casselman argues that, while the word is now in wide circulation, “paraprosdokian” (or “paraprosdokia”) is not a term of classical (or medieval) Greek or Latin rhetoric, but is a newly coined term from the late 20th-century.  [It’s relatively recent introduction to the lexicon may serve to explain its absence from the O.E.D.] Other students of language argue that the term appears, albeit infrequently, in at least a few 19th century volumes, and may have actual roots in early Greek writing on rhetoric.

churchillI’d certainly never heard of the word before, but encountered it in an email from a friend, who forwarded a list of twenty or so examples of this delightful figure of speech. Winston Churchill was apparently a fan of the paraprosdokian, though if Mr. Casselman is correct, Sir Winston would never have referred to these classic lines as such:

“A modest man, who has much to be modest about.” —Winston Churchill on Clement Atlee

“There, but for the grace of God, goes God.” —Winston Churchill about a pompous fellow politician.

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried.”

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

Here are my Top Ten Paraprodokians:

top1010. Everything comes to those who wait… except a cat.

9. I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it. – Groucho Marx

8. Don’t argue with an idiot; he’ll drag you down to his level and beat you with experience.

7. I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather, not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.

6. Light travels faster than sound; that’s why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.

5. If I agreed with you we’d both be wrong.

4. Some cause happiness wherever they go. Others, whenever they go. – Oscar Wilde

3. Always borrow money from a pessimist. He won’t expect it back.

2. We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.

And my all-time favorite:

1. The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits. – Albert Einstein

What are some of your favorites?

Join the Conversation


    1. I think it is certainly the funniest one on my list.
      Are there any others that you particularly like?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.