Paraprosdokians. What in the world are they? They’re not the latest in foodie fashion nor are they some strange being from a Star Wars film. It’s definitely hard to spell and even more difficult to pronounce. So why bother, right? Actually, they are more common than we realize because paraprosdokians are a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected, and is frequently humorous. For example, “Where there is a will, I want to be in it.” Or, “I used to be indecisive but now I’m not so sure.” Maybe you haven’t heard those specific examples but I’ll bet you’re familiar with Henny Youngman’s well known comment, “Take my wife…please.” That’s called as a paraprosdokian.
Many famous people have contributed to the ever-growing list of paraprosdokians—Einstein, Oscar Wilde, and Alexandre Dumas to name a few. As far back as the first and second century, Aristotle along with many other Greek philosophers offered unexpected twists in their words of wisdom with such comments as, “On his feet he wore…blisters.” However, the word didn’t appear in print until 1891 when it was mentioned in a humorous article published in Punch magazine.
The inventions of radio and television set the stage for increased use of paraprosdokians in the 20th century. Even though children probably have had no idea about them, they’ve heard the classic: “Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.” These witticisms are also widely used online because it is a good excuse for repeating choice quotes by clever writers.
Due to the skillful juxtaposition of meaning, the paraprosdokians are most often used for humorous effect—a sentence or phrase starts heading one way and ends going in a different, unexpected direction. It’s like driving to San Francisco and ending up in San Diego. The results are often hilarious, insightful and fun. This technique made some comedians very famous—Groucho Marx, Don Rickles, Steven Wright and others.
A search in Google nets more than 43,900 results. Despite the well-established usage of the term in print and online, curiously, the word does not appear in the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary and most if not all, American print-edition dictionaries. Strange how a word of ancient Greek origin isn’t considered worthy enough to be in the OED. Like Rodney Dangerfield said, the word paraprosdokian “gets no respect.”
If there’s one thing I’ve learned writing this column, it’s how to spell paraprosdokians. As for pronouncing it, I’m not so sure. Creating one? I’ll leave that to the “pros.”