By Curtis Honeycutt
I’ve never heard of an “aunt-in-law,” but I know it’s a thing. The beauty of having a spouse’s aunt or uncle in your family is that you have every right to call them by his or her first name, unlike your in-laws, who get to dictate how you address them. Today’s linguistic inspiration comes from my wife’s Aunt Julie, all the way up in Bemidji, Minn. Thanks for the idea, Julie!
Aunt Julie pointed my interests to paraprosdokians, which are figures of speech in which the second part of the sentence makes you do a double-take, changing the meaning from what you thought based on the first part of the sentence. I’ll explain in a minute. But first, it’s important to know that “paraprosdokian” comes from the Greek, and it means “against expectation.” The first known use of the word paraprosdokian in print is from an 1891 article in the British humor magazine Punch.
Paraprosdokians turn our brains into scrambled eggs, and the result is delightful. I knew Grammar Guy readers (who are card-carrying word nerds) would appreciate learning about these twisted figures of speech. One of my favorite paraprosdokians is from fellow columnist and Okie, Will Rogers, who famously said, “I don’t belong to an organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” Regardless of which side of the aisle you find yourself, that’s funny.
Since you’re reading a newspaper (or some digital zeros and ones version of it), I’ll share another paraprosdokian from another columnist, Mark Twain: “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re misinformed.” We’ll see if my editor keeps that one in or not!
Many of the most notable paraprosdokians come from comedians, who make a living playing with words. Rodney Dangerfield quipped, “When I was a kid my parents moved a lot, but I always found them.” Comedian Steven Wright joked, “On the other hand, you have different fingers.” If you read that too fast you won’t get it.
Paraprosdokians often contain unexpected truths. Oscar Wilde wrote, “When I was young, I used to think that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old, I know it is.” John F. Kennedy famously said, “You know nothing for sure … except the fact that you know nothing for sure.” Now go forth and use your words to confuse, surprise, entertain and inspire people – just don’t try to do it all in the same sentence.
—Curtis Honeycutt is a syndicated humor columnist. He is the author of Good Grammar is the Life of the Party: Tips for a Wildly Successful Life. Find more at curtishoneycutt.com.