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The creation of new words – AKA, neologisms – is all but a daily activity in our culture. In fact, awareness of neologisms and their meanings can be considered a measure of the degree to which one is up-to-date with a rapidly changing world. At the same time, such awareness can also be a mark of membership in a sub-culture or movement.

Take, for example, the word “brony.” A portmanteau of the word “bro,” which is itself an abbreviated form of “brother,” and “pony,” a “brony” is a young man who has become a fan of the children’s show “My Little Pony.” (This leads into a discussion beyond the realm of this blog.)

A portmanteau with a little more recognition is “sexting,” a reference to the fad of sending sexually explicit text messages. (This is yet another topic not within the scope of this blog.)

Waiting for the next “care” to come along…

In the realm of political and other scandals, the suffix “-gate” has been in almost constant use since the original politically motivated break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC.It’s most recent appearance was in the “bountygate” scandal, which broke in March of this year, revealing scheme in which members of the New Orleans Saints football team were rewarded for “big plays” especially ones that resulted in injuries for the opposing team.

It can be tricky to use neologisms effectively. Unless their meaning is immediately clear, the result can be confusion rather than illumination for reader or listener, which is contrary to the purpose of rhetorical practice. At the same time, once a neologism is in universal use, its power to identify one as being on the cutting edge or a member of a select group, is significantly weakened.

One can, of course, darn the torpedoes and coin one’s own words. But writers and speakers can be difficult to tempt into accepting words that are obvious in their fabrication. One should not appear too eager.

The key then, is to use a neologism almost immediately after its appearance and then refrain from repeating it unless and until it has become commonly understood and accepted. Even then, one must consider its useful lifespan to be limited in which case, being among the first to stop using it is the indicator of being on the cutting-edge of language.

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Rhetorical Trope #48 – The Parable

First, because they are so easily and so often confused, let’s differentiate between a parable and a fable. While both are brief stories meant to illustrate an abstract or moral point, a parable only involves people while a fable can assign speaking roles to players not usually considered sentient such as animals, minerals and botanicals.

Darn it! We’ve already heard this one…

So, where the fox mutters about the out-of-reach grapes probably being sour, that’s a fable. And where the prodigal (human) son returns to his welcoming father, that’s a parable.

There are authorities who reserve the term “parable” for those attributed to Jesus of Nazareth and recorded in Christian Scripture. This is, however, too restrictive a usage. Parables can be found in the sacred literature of many, if not all, spiritual traditions. Nor are they exclusively religious; many business books include both parables and fables. Indeed, some are based entirely upon a single edifying tale.

Parables work in at least two ways: they’re entertaining and therefore memorable. This gives them a strong rhetorical aspect. They have as well a good dose of logic, in that they invite the listener to put him or herself into the story and think about how they might react in the same or similar circumstances.
Here’s a parable from the Zen Buddhist tradition that’s one of our personal favorites. (Don’t worry, there’s no one-handed claps.) The principle underlying this tale is the wisdom of not jumping to conclusions.

A man lived with his wife and son on a farm close to the village.

One day, the farmer’s only horse – a mare – got out of the paddock and ran off into the woods.

The villagers came by to commiserate with him over the bad luck he’d experienced.

To this sentiment, the farmer only said, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

The next day the mare returned and following it was a handsome young stallion.

The villagers came by to marvel at what good luck he had.

To this, the farmer only said, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

The next day the farmer’s son began to train their new stallion to take a saddle. The wild horse threw the boy whose leg was broken in the fall.

Once again the villagers came by to express their regrets for his bad luck.

And, of course, once again, the farmer merely said, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

The next day an army passed through the village, conscripting all the young men. The farmer’s son, with his broken leg, was the only one not taken off to war taking in a far-off province.

We’d hope that by that point the villagers had taken the lesson that the long-term goodness or badness of one’s immediate experiences cannot be judged; such things take time to play out. We also hope that the young man’s leg healed quickly, the stallion was domesticated and the farmer’s inherent wisdom brought him, his family and horses long, happy and productive lives.

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Rhetorical Scheme #40 – The Homophone

Eye no watt “homophone” miens. Dew ewe?

Which is fun but it can get tiring after the first few sentences.

When used in moderation – after all, they are dangerously close to being puns – as the “keystone” of a much larger message, homophones can be very effective. They make memorable slogans as in the perennial favorite, which plays on the identical sounds of the words “no” and “know:”


Hey! We're not so bored with this game after all!

A message that is close to the hearts of many around the world, most of whom would acknowledge that the statement is less a demonstration of faith than a mnemonic aid for the relationship between Jesus and a believing Christian’s state of mind.

Like many homophonic constructions, it’s also a “snowclone” (see Rhetorical Trope #68.) The word “JESUS” can be replaced with many other words that would then be presented as the source of peace. For example, Jews could say:


Some Buddhists might argue that:


Which is not to belittle any of these great faith traditions, we just happen to like the “NO-NO; KNOW-KNOW” form.

For another example on homophonic plays on words, we cite a public service ad that ran a few years back, warning against real estate fraud.

The scene is the interior of a car, an older couple in the front. As they drive through a desert wilderness, the husband is gleeful at the prospect of examining the land he’s bought unseen. The wife… not so much. I forget the names, but that’s not the important part:

HUSBAND: John Doe, land baron.

WIFE: Barren land is more like it.

Yes! Got him with that one. And the commercial is still in our mind years later.

Those who remember the Gordon Ramsey of his day, Graham Kerr, AKA “The Galloping Gourmet,” will recall his risqué style, giving his audience and viewers such directions as “now take a leek…”

But, fear not, we’ll spare you detailed recounting of such homophone-based Abbott and Costello routines using such phrases as “mother lode,” “gold ore” and “go get a peke at Mrs. Pike.” We’ve made the point.

While not a substitute for well-presented information, or a rational argument, used sparingly and in the appropriate venue, homophones can liven up an argument or pitch as well as fix it in the receiver’s mind.

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Decision-Making And Behavioral Bias #39 – Unit Bias

You’ve had enough to eat but since there’s still a slice of pizza (half a bagel, a quarter of a muffin) left on your plate you figure you might as well finish it off. When summer eventually sizzles up you discover that your favorite bathing suit appears to have shrunk.

The technical term for what’s happened – meaning all those decisions to finish the food on your plate, not the weight gain – is “unit bias.” It’s another of the many cognitive biases we consider worth knowing about because knowing how people think about and perceive the world helps us to understand how to “engage, inform and persuade” as per our company motto.

I’m only going to eat this one piece!

For example, some studies suggest that babies gain weight faster when bottle-fed rather than breast-fed. While one possible reason for this is the nature of the formula the bottle-fed baby is getting, another is a direct result of unit bias.

Because, when using the bottle, the mother (or who is doing the feeding) can see that the baby hasn’t finished. So, when the infant pulls away, rather than assuming that he or she is satisfied with the amount of formula consumed and deciding that it’s time to stop, the feeder encourages the child to stay on task until the job is done.

But when breastfeeding, the mother doesn’t have as accurate a measure of how much milk may be left; she may some idea, but not one as accurate as suggested by a bottle calibrated in milliliters. So, when the baby pulls away, the mother generally assumes that he or she has had enough and decides move on to the burping and diaper-changing processes.

Hence, bottle-fed babies nurse until the bottle is empty (unit bias), breastfed babies until satisfied (no unit bias). Further-hence, the former tend to pack on a little more baby-fat than the latter.

(Disclaimer: We’re far from expert or even well-informed on current standards of nourishing young children. Our subject is flaws in the decision-making process as an adjunct to rhetorical practice, not neo-natal care. The best decisions regarding child care are those made by parents in conjunction with the physician they’ve chosen to be responsible for their child’s growth and health.)

When it’s time to leave but you don’t because “the program ends in ten minutes,” or “there are only three pages left in the chapter,” or “I have just one more comment to make on my friend’s wall,” that’s unit bias. While the program, book and comment may all be important and useful, and finishing what one has begun is generally a good habit to have, the decision whether to continue with one activity or to start the next one on the agenda needn’t be so heavily dependent upon how close to a milestone one has gotten.

That’s what bookmarks, DVRs and refrigerators are for.

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Rhetorical Trope #68 – The Snowclone

As with many rhetorical tropes, snowclones surround us. We may have actually used one occasionally, or repeated one we’d heard.

A snowclone isn’t really a figure of speech, per se, but a template or model for one. Cynics might comment that they’re the seeds for limitless cliches. Once understood and widely accepted, a snowclone can have many applications far beyond its original one.

For example, back in the 1980s, the General Motors attempted to rejuvenate it Oldsmobile brand with the catch-phrase “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” (For the record, the consensus is that the campaign backfired by reminding young people that Oldsmobiles were the kind of cars their fathers drove.)

Since that seminal usage, the phrase “Not your father’s (or mother’s) [place noun here]” has found currency, sometimes ironically, sometimes in all seriousness.

Perhaps one’s parents had one of the original Motorola cell phones, affectionately known as “The Brick” for its bulk in comparison to today’s miniature models. In this case, the phrase “Not your father’s cell phone” would be appropriate.

The mother of all snowclones

Other snowclones include:

  • Appending the suffix “-gate” to a word to indicate a scandal, still popular almost forty years after the Watergate Affair. Examples: Rupert Murdoch’s “Hackgate” and the Wikileaks related “Cablegate”
  • Saying “I’m a doctor, not a [place noun here]!” in homage to Star Trek’s Dr. McCoy, who often found the need to use his medical training as an excuse for being cranky. Examples: “I’m a doctor, not an elevator!” and “I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer!” (Perhaps best used if one actually is a physician.)
  • Playing off of the fashion world’s occasional proclamations that “orange is the new red” or “gray is new black”, we might declare that “[noun] is the new [other noun]!” Examples: “Fifty is the new forty!”, and “Unemployment is the new retirement!”

The term “snowclone” itself derives from the (inaccurate) observation that Innuit Indians (formerly known as Eskimo) had an abundance of words for “snow.” This led to the cliché template “[name] has a [number] of words for [noun].” A somewhat risque example comes from the British sit-com “Coupling” in which Steve is talking with his friend, the sexually awkward Jeff:

Steve: “Yet you have 8000 words for breasts.”

Jeff: “… and counting.”

We have gotten a lot of use out of a snowclone of our own construction: “You can’t throw a [noun] around here without hitting a [different noun]!”, which is meant to imply the ubiquity of objects indicated by the second noun. Proud we are of the following, really-actually-happened exchange on a local street:

Stranger: “Are there any Chinese restaurants nearby?”

Us: “Are there? You can’t throw a pair of chopsticks around here without hitting a Chinese restaurant!”

Thank you… Thank you… You’re too kind… I’m here every day, Monday through Friday… (another snowclone there)… Thank you.

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Informal Fallacy #39 – The Red Herring

What’s a red herring? That’s an excellent question and I’m glad to have the opportunity to address this subject. Simply put, it’s the sort of deliberately misleading statement – which needn’t even be completely false – employed by speakers or writers when trying to mask their real positions, their total ignorance, even their possible involvement in a multi-national pharmaceuticals smuggling ring that spans three continents and has ruined thousands of lives. Now, I don’t know about you, but I for one wouldn’t want to see an ignorant, opinionated drug dealer assuming any sort of leadership position in this country. But that’s just me.

Now that’s what we call a red herring.

“He did it first!” “She dared me to do it!” “You know, they broke your window last month!” All have the potential to deflect attention from the question and turn it in another direction completely.

Now, what was that question again?

Red herrings – especially in the form of “zingers” – abound in debates such as those with the candidates for the Republican nomination for President. Buried – sometimes deeply, sometimes not so deeply – in the answer to a question is a comment intended, not to advance or clarify the speaker’s position, but to distract the audience away from a tough subject and on to one more easily addressed. It doesn’t take long to find them; these are from the last of that series of forums.

Asked about his position on extending the the payroll tax cut, Mitt Romney garnished his reply with the remark:

“… it’s a shame that we’ve got a president who thinks that being hands-on in the economy means working on his golf cred.”

Good one! But not to the point and not even truthful since we have no evidence that the President believes that the economy’s future depends upon his golf swing.

When Romney mentioned the value of his years in the private sector, distinguishing him from “career politician” Newt Gingrich, the latter responded:

“The only reason you didn’t become a career politician is you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994.”

Ouch! Still, not the point. The fact that Romney’s loss to Kennedy in 1994 delayed his entry into political office has no impact upon the value of the nine additional years of experience he consequently had in the private sector.

Responding to the question why he believed that marital fidelity was an important issue for people to consider in making their choice for President, Rick Perry said:

“I said that– not only did I make a vow to my wife, but I made a vow to God. And– that’s pretty heavy liftin’ in my book. When I make a vow to God– then– I would suggest to you that’s– even stronger than a handshake in Texas.”

That’s tellin’ it! “God,” “liftin’,” “Texas,” all great buzz-words. But the relative strength of a handshake in Texas is not the point. Perry was asked to explain why marital fidelity is important in a Presidential candidate, not to describe the types and weights of the vows he’s made to his wife and God.

Finally, when Romney was asked why he was leading with his family and faith in his Iowa campaign, his answer included the comment:

“I’m really concerned about America. I think the issue people have to concentrate on is– is, “Who can lead America to a place where we– we don’t become a Greece or an Italy?” Because, frankly, that’s the path we’re on. That’s where we’re going.”

A weighty concern, to be sure; one worthy of a President. But how will his family values and Mormon religion help America avoid ending up like Greece, Italy or any other country in the Euro Zone?

Anyone can play this game; examples of what Roman rhetoricians called “ignoratio elenchi,” or “ignorance of refutation,” abound. It’s a species far from becoming endangered. Look for them, point them out and, most importantly, avoid them in your own discourse and make the world a safer place for reason and truth.

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Rhetorical Scheme #28 – The Ellipsis

Most of us know the ellipsis as “dot-dot-dot,” indicating that some words have been omitted, most often for the sake of brevity. In a more sophisticated use, the ellipsis signifies a point where words have failed the writer or speaker.

Because sometimes, in fact, we are at a loss for words. When we’re overcome with emotion or a surfeit of information. It is the need to communicate that occasional state of mind, that makes the ellipsis such a handy tool.

But… You… Me… Last night…

(Of course, it’s a little difficult to explain a rhetorical device that is, essentially, an absence of words rather than a presence, but we’re doing our best.)

As noted above, an ellipsis can indicate a reluctance or inability to speak. For example, Jeffrey, came home from his hunting trip with a thick new moustache.

“How do you like it?” he asks.

“It’s… “, his wife answers. “Um… It’s look great!”

In an email, an ellipsis can serve to join the subject line to the first line of the message, hopefully inducing the recipient to open it:

SUBJECT: When I opened the package I found a…

MESSAGE: … Brand New Mobile Phone!

I could give more examples but… well… I don’t want to overdo it. Ellipses (the correct plural form) are simple enough.