February 10, 2015 by libroshombre
Voltaire’s 18th century warning remains valid. “It is dangerous,” he wrote, “to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.” And it’s mighty easy to get things wrong. One of the popular books featured in the just-completed Guys Read program was “National Geographic’s Kids Myths Busted,” which clarified a variety of misassumptions. For instance, the average person doesn’t swallow four spiders in their sleep annually, or even one, eating Poprocks while drinking a soda won’t make you explode, and pennies dropped from the Empire State Building won’t kill someone on the sidewalk, but a ballpoint pen, with its aerodynamic shape, can reach 200 mph.
Other examples of getting things wrong have arisen in linguistic and rhetorician circles over paraprosdokians. The arrival of “10 Paraprosdokians To Tickle Your Brain” brought the term to my attention. The accompanying definition said “paraprosdokians are figures of speech where the latter part of the phrase is humorously surprising or unexpected and causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part.” Dorothy Parker was a past master at them, such as “If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”
Never encountering a paraprosdokian before, I looked in Outlook.com, but out of its 1,061 dictionaries, only five listed the word, including the unreliable Worthless Word of the Day and Urban Dictionaries. The “Glossary of Rhetorical Terms with Examples” sounded authoritative when the link produced the University of Kentucky’s Classics Graduate Program website that claimed the glossary originated with a professor at Wayne State University.
Besides paraprosdokian, the glossary included better-known parts of speech, like irony. However, further research unearthed “The Bogus Word Paraprosdokian and the Lazy Con men of Academe” by Canadian lexicographer Bill Cassleman. Cassleman’s hackles were raised by professors acting as if paraprosdokian was a classical word “sanctioned by centuries of use,” and not the freshly-coined neologism that it is. Paraprosdokian, hewrites, “appears NOWHERE in ancient Greek literature. It could NEVER be an ancient Greek word with its Late Latin adjectival ending –ian! It has never been listed in any edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.”
Everyone wants to get their personal lives right, so the recent Atlantic article by Emily Esfahani Smith titled “Science Says Lasting Relationships Come Down to 2 Basic Traits,” was a must-read. It cites research by University of Washington psychologist John Gottmann, founder of the Gottman Institute that’s “devoted to helping couples build and maintain loving, healthy relationships based on scientific studies.” It’s a fascinating and convincing article, describing how Gottmanestablished “The Love Lab” to study how newlywed couples interact. The couples’ heart rate, sweating, and other physiological reactions were tracked as they discussed how they met, and their negative and positive memories. Couples who were supportive and responsive to their partners had lower metabolic rates, while the rates of couples who were rude or inconsiderate were much higher.
Gottman determined that the couples most likely to support or simply acknowledge each other’s comments did so 90% of the time, while those who didn’t respond positively did so 33% of the time. In other words, “Contempt … is the number one factor that tears couples apart. People who are focused on criticizing their partners miss a whopping 50% of positive things their partners are doing, and they see negativity when it’s not there … Being mean is the death knell of a relationship. Kindness, on the other hand glues couples together … kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage … there’s a great deal of evidence showing that more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves.”
In short, those who look for goodness find it, and so do those looking for badness. It’s what separates censors from public library book selectors, who look for good books rather than guard against bad ones. Opinions about good and bad will always vary. But Ogden Nash was right when he said, “To keep your marriage brimming /With love in the loving cup,/ Whenever you’re wrong admit it;/ Whenever you’re right, shut up.”