paralipsis

I don’t have to tell you that this word has two of most of its letters – p, a, i, s – plus a pair of liquids; some might suggest that this indicates doublespeak or a forked tongue, but I will not. And it hardly needs pointing out that this word resembles parallel and parallax, which I just yesterday tasted; it goes without saying that they have the Greek para “alongside” root in common. The lipsis comes from leipein “leave”, so the roots combine to make “leave alongside”, which is what this word means.

But it doesn’t mean it literally; it means it rhetorically, a sort of feigned rhetorical paralysis (or acted cataplexy). Imagine the stream of discourse as like a conveyor belt of ideas. Now imagine that every so often in the incessant stream someone takes an idea and pulls it off and sets it aside. I don’t need to ask which you’re more likely to turn your attention to, the stream of ideas or the one that was pulled off and set aside. It’s sort of like saying “Don’t think about elephants.”

I used to have a professor who would occasionally introduce slightly mischievous suggestions into his discourse by saying “I was about to say” – as in “She looked rather like, erm, I was about to say rather like a tart.” But of course he didn’t say it, did he, aside from, you know, saying it. That’s the good-humoured way of using paralipsis. It would be distasteful to mention here the less pleasant mode of use it gets in politics, drawing attention to a character attack by saying you won’t mention it – anyway, Andy Hollandbeck does just fine covering that side of it at logophilius.blogspot.com, wherein he calls it by the name praeteritio.

Yes, paralipsis has a number of names; aside from praeteritio, it can also be called preterition, cataphrasis, antiphrasis, and parasiopesis. But I like paralipsis. I like it, for one thing, because it makes me think of a parellipsphere. What’s that? It is (or was – it was made in the ’70s and ’80s) a theatrical light that combines the best parts of three different kinds of reflectors – parabolic, ellipsoidal, and spherical – to cast a strong, clear, focused beam. They make good spotlights (not follow spots, though; fixed). And paralipsis draws attention just as surely and as strongly as a parellipsphere.

One thing I don’t need to draw attention to is this word’s strong taste of pair of lips. Oh, there’s many a slip betwixt cup and lip, and I’m a-Freud some of them are not pure lapsus. I was going to close with the admonition that you always have to watch what the pair of lips is actually saying, but I think you know that, so I’ll leave it aside.

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