Paraprosdokians

24 Nov

Thanks to Mick for this. Commenting on my bicycle thieves post he quoted actor, writer and stand up comic Emo Philips:

I asked God for a bike, but then realised God doesn’t work that way. So I stole a bike and prayed for forgiveness.

I looked it up to find it’s a classic example of a paraprosdokian – pronunciation here – defined on englishforums.com as a figure of speech in which:

the latter part of a sentence or phrase is unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to re-frame or re-interpret the first part. It is frequently used for humorous or dramatic effect [so] is extremely popular among comedians and satirists.

This is followed by examples. Heading the list is the bike advice of Mr Philips by way of my pal Mick. Others include:

  • Never argue with an idiot. He will drag you down to his level and beat you with his greater experience.
  • I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather, not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.
  • The last thing I want to do is hurt you. But it’s still on the list.
  • Light travels faster than sound. This is why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.
  • A clear conscience is usually a sign of a bad memory.

Plenty more where they came from. Some used to feature on matchboxes, like this one …

Wife to husband as they leave dinner party: “well you certainly made a fool of yourself – I hope nobody realised you were sober!”

Others, popular in adolescence and in my case long after, call for two actors. The job of the first is to unwittingly set up the paraprosdokian with an everyday question. The other then gives it a new slant:

are you coming?

nah, just breathing heavy.

Others still have famous authors. Winston Churchill was fond of them – where there’s a will, I want to be in it. As was Groucho Marx – I worked my way up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty.

Homer Simpson uses them in spades – if I could just say a few words, I’d be a better public speaker.

And then there are those offering life skills tips. Always borrow money from a pessimist. He won’t expect you to pay him back.

I know that to be good advice. Decades ago I bumped absent-mindedly into the car in front at Hunter’s Bar roundabout, Sheffield. I was ready to put my hand up for it and take the hit to my pocket, but what happened next was so extraordinary I felt the hand of fate at work. The other guy got out to inform me, every fibre of his being and demeanor exuding weary dismay at the human condition, that I was going to deny culpability. Just like the guy who’d pranged him the week before had.

Story of his whole sorry existence.

He went on and on – I would say this and he would say that but he wouldn’t be able to prove a damn thing – while all I could do was listen. I couldn’t get a word in edgeways. Giving one final shake of his head at the moral frailty of humanity at large, with me just the latest instantiation, he sloped back to his newly re-dented vehicle and drove off. Sensing that stoic resignation may not be all it’s cracked up to be, I fired the engine and followed suit.

That final paraprosdokian speaks true. Pessimists – their low expectations conferring immunity from disappointment – were put on this earth to save the rest of us from needless expenditure.

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