The humour within paraprosdokians


Karan Thapar

You won’t find the word in the Oxford dictionary but it’s in Wikipedia. Paraprosdokians is defined as a figure of speech in which the second half of a phrase or sentence is surprising or unexpected. It can be a clever form of wit or a neat way of taking a dig.

I most enjoy paraprosdokians when they’re used as a put down. PG Wodehouse’s description of a fat woman is devastating: “She looks as though she’s been poured into her clothes and forgot to say ‘when’.” So, too, Groucho Marx’s parting comment to his hostess: “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.”

For debaters, paraprosdokians are a Godsend. Here are a few from the Cambridge Union which are a part of the conventional armoury used for tackling awkward opponents: “He’s a modest man with much to be modest about”, “He’s a well balanced person with a chip on both shoulders”, and “Our quarrels are a case of mind over matter – I don’t mind and he doesn’t matter”.

Winston Churchill was one of the few politicians who used paraprosdokians to great effect. Often the United States was his target: “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.” But even Clemenceau, though French, had a knack for it. And guess who his target was? “America is the only country to have progressed from barbarism to decadence without experiencing the intervening stage of civilization.” There’s a delightful but possibly apocryphal anecdote about George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill which is entirely based on this delicious figure of speech. The playwright sent the politician two tickets to the first night of one of his new plays. “For you and a friend, if you have one”, the accompanying note read. Not a bit put out, Churchill replied “I can’t make the first night but I’ll be there for the second, if there is one.”

My late cousin Ranjit, who spent his life researching the ephemeral and the obscure, once sent me a joyous collection of paraprosdokians. They’re the sort you could cheerfully use. Memorise a few and wait for the first good opportunity! Here they are:

“The last thing I want to do is hurt you, but it’s still on my list.” “If I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong.” “A clear conscience is the sign of a fuzzy memory”. “Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.” “I used to be indecisive. Now I’m not so sure”. “I didn’t say it was your fault, I said I was blaming you”. “To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research”. But here’s a special one for all of you fed up of television: The evening news is where they begin with “Good Evening” and then proceed to tell you why it isn’t.

When I told my secretary, Santosh Kumar, I was going to write about paraprosdokians he did a bit of research and came up with a few delightful ones. They’re both witty and clever: “Where there’s a will, I want to be in it”; “Since light travels faster than sound, some people appear bright until you hear them speak”; “To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target”; “You’re never too old to learn something stupid”; “I’m supposed to respect my elders, but it’s getting harder and harder for me to find one now”.

Let me leave you with a tongue-in-cheek truth about men and women which might be a trifle sexist but is also largely true. “Women will never be equal to men until they can walk down the street with a bald head and a beer gut and still think they’re sexy.”

(HT Media)