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Five linguistic devices you use but don’t know the name for

John Murray

Writers and orators often use figures of speech for emphasis, or simply to inject some creativity into otherwise dry words, but how often do they know the technical terms for what they are doing?

Here are five techniques that we all recognise, but are rarely able to correctly  identify:

1. Portmanteau

When new inventions and developments come about, it’s usually not long before writers give them a name. Often, they form a neologism (a newly coined word) simply by fusing together two existing words. Such creations are known as portmanteau words.

For example, if you’ve ever used a spork (a tool that can act as both a spoon and a fork) to eat a banoffee (banana and toffee) pie, you would have enjoyed a very portmanteau-based pudding.

2. Tmesis

One of the favourite words of TV personality Stephen Fry, ‘tmesis’ holds the distinction of being the only word in the English language beginning with ‘tm’.

It’s the practice of inserting one or more words within a word, such as ‘abso-blooming-lutely’ or the Ned Flanders greeting ‘wel-diddly-elcome’.

3. Epanorthosis

Deriving from the Greek word for ‘revision’, epanorthosis means correcting oneself mid-sentence. Often, however, it’s done deliberately for emphasis.

In a phrase like “there are hundreds, no, thousands of reasons to do it”, the number of reasons is given greater emphasis because the speaker or writer has seemingly reconsidered it as he or she went along.

4. Dysphemism

The prefix dys- generally means something is bad or wrong, and this is the term for substituting a word for a stronger, more insulting one that’s usually not to be taken literally.

An example could be referring to unpleasant people as ‘rats’ or ‘pigs’, or it can even be used in a friendly or affectionate way, as in “how’s my favourite idiot this morning?”

5. Paraprosdokian

A bit of a mouthful of a word, but another fairly simple and common technique. A paraprosdokian is a sentence of which the meaning is changed by its ending. It’s usually used in a jokey way, so that a sentence that begins positively becomes less so, as in this quote from Groucho Marx:

“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.”

A less witty example could be the 1990s school trend of ending a sentence with the word ‘not’, so that it meant the opposite of what had just been said.

So, now you know what they’re called, be sure to pick up on your friends’ paraprosdokians and tmeses. You’re bound to gain even more friends by doing so.

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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