Meaning and Rhetoric

In my last post, I talked about the principle that structures can carry meaning, and I gave the examples of a couple of sentence types: tag questions and the cleft construction. In this post I want to talk about the structural meaning of a couple of rhetorical figures. My goal, if I ever reach it, is to talk about the meaning of the structure of a whole novel. But these little steps on the way are interesting in themselves.

First, a little about the rhetorical figures in general. A typical handbook of rhetoric—such as Richard Lanham’s Handlist of Rhetoric Terms—lists something over two hundred rhetorical figures. The exact number is hard to determine, because some figures have more than one name, and some names cover more than one figure. In addition, the list is a hodge-podge of different kinds of figures. At the back of Lanham’s handlist there is a useful division of the terms by type: Addition, subtraction, and substitution of letters and syllables or of words, phrases, and clauses; Amplification; Balance, antithesis, and paradox; Brevity; Description; Emotional appeals; Example, allusion, and citation of authority; Metaphorical substitutions and puns; Repetition of letters, syllables, and sounds, of words, of clauses, phrases, and ideas; Techniques of argument; and Ungrammatical, illogical, or unusual uses of language. How could all of these be related? In what way does Addition of syllables belong with Emotional appeals? I think that answer is that the lists of figures grew haphazardly, without any particular thought about theoretical coherence. I’m certainly not going to get all worried about it.

One of the figures is epizeuxis, which Lanham defines as “emphatic repetition of a word with no other words between.” Another figure is diacope, which is “repetition of a word with one or a few words in between.” That’s great, it’s useful to have names for these. Here are a couple of examples of epizeuxis from Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools:

            “I adore you,” she said, “you are such a preposterous good moral dull ridiculous man, but charming, charming!” (121)

            “Imagine, if the ship should sink, we should go down together embraced, gently, gently to the bottom of the sea….” (316)

There are quite a few examples of epizeuxis in Ship of Fools and in many other novels. In general, as Lanham says, the figure adds emphasis to the repeated word, though “emphasis” is kind of a do-nothing description. Half the figures could be said to add emphasis of one sort or another. The kind of emphasis given by epizeuxis depends on the particular words that are repeated. Here’s another instance:

His splendid image in her imagination got a blow as always at sight of this rather staring, lifeless army photograph, no light, no color, the clear eyes empty, cold as agates. No, no—never again, never again. (385)

The repetition of “No, no—never again, never again” is very different from the repetition of “gently, gently.”

Epizeuxis, by the way, should be distinguished from anadiplosis, which occurs when the end of one sentence is repeated at the beginning of the end the next sentence. Here’s an anadiplosis from Ship of Fools: “…it was necessary to make the change with the least possible delay and expense. Delay and expense had been the common portion….” (10). Anadiplosis is a linking figure; I have discussed links extensively elsewhere.

Now on to diacope, “repetition of a word with one or a few words in between.” Here’s an example:

Years might pass before it happened once for all, but there would come a day, an unspeakable day, when he would be bald…. (129)

Lanham’s definition of the figure doesn’t explain why you would add the word or words before the repetition. In this instance, I think we can say that the figure allows for an important qualification of the repeated word. A standard epizeuxis, on the other hand, doesn’t involve qualification, just repetition. Compare the sentence without the diacope:

Years might pass before it happened once for all, but there would come an unspeakable day when he would be bald.

The diacope certainly makes a difference, but it’s not easy to say exactly what that difference is. The diacope adds some emphasis, but it also adds the sense of a second thought, as if the speaker has considered the situation more fully. This feeling is missing, I think, from simple epizeuxis.

Then there’s another figure, related to epizeuxis and diacope, but which has never been named, so far as I know. Here’s an example, also from Ship of Fools:

At the top of the stairs they were almost overwhelmed from the back by the troupe of Spanish dancers, who simply went through, over and around them like a wave, a wave with elbows. (39)

Here the words “a wave, a wave” look like an epizeuxis, but then there’s an expansion into “a wave with elbows”. In some ways this expansion is like the qualifying word that we saw in diacope, a second thought, but after the repetition rather than before it. It is used most often when the qualifier can’t be placed before the repeated word. In English we can’t say, “a wave, a with-elbows wave.” We have to put the qualifying phrase aftewards. So far as I know, there is no name for this figure; I call it extended epizeuxis, for lack of any better name. Here’s another example:

“…he bore himself rigidly, and his face was that of a pompous minor god: a god who had grown somewhat petulant and more than a little mean…” (94–95)

The structure is “adjective+adjective+noun: noun+relative clause”.

And here’s an example of diacope and extended epizeuxis in one sentence:

He felt he was a faun, a fleet prancing faun deep in the forest glade…. (447)

Here the words “fleet prancing” before the second “faun” make a diacope, and the words “deep in the forest glade” make an extended epizeuxis. Here the structure is “noun: adjective+noun+phrase”.

Extended epizeuxis is pretty common. In the later style of Henry James it becomes something of a mannerism. Here are a few from the first hundred pages of The Wings of the Dove. (Some of these don’t make much sense out of context, and some don’t make much sense even in context—that’s late James for you):

It was so respectable a show that she felt afresh, and with the memory of their old despair, the despair at home, how little his appearance ever by any chance told about him. (25–26).

This had been the real beginning—the beginning of everything else…. (50)

There were many explanations, and they were all amusing—amusing, that is, in the line of somber and brooding amusement cultivated by Kate…. (51)

His answer to which was only the softness of her silence—a silence that looked out for them both at the far reach of their prospect. (73)

It was her nature, once for all—a nature that reminded Mrs. Stringham of the term always used in the newspapers… (81)

It had cleared perhaps to a view only too extensive—extensive, that is, in proportion to the signs of life presented. (93)

The only light in which he placed the former of these ladies was that of an extraordinary woman—a most extraordinary woman, and “the more extraordinary the more one knows her”…. (100)

These examples include some variations—variations which would need to be examined more fully in a complete account of this heretofore unnamed figure. These examples also need to be placed in the context of the other kinds of repetition found in this novel. Here’s one which certainly is related to extended epizeuxis:

He paused a moment, and his companion then saw how strange a smile was in his face—a smile as strange even as the adjunct in her own of this informing vision. (69)

Here the word “smile” is followed by the phrase “was in his face”, and then “strange a smile” is turned around to “a smile as strange” in a chiasmus.

Does it matter if a figure has a name? I would say that it does. The naming of figure allows it to occupy a distinct mental space—a mental space which can be ready to store further examples. These examples can then be compared and examined to see how they work and what they mean. Readers and writers both can benefit from this increased attention to the resources of language.

The point of this little exercise is first to suggest that the list of 200 or so named figures is not enough; there are more to be named. The handbooks, for good reasons, usually restrict themselves to a simple definition and a few examples without much discussion of use and meaning. But we always have to remember the fundamental principle I mentioned in my previous post—in language, structure can carry meaning. The structures that we call the rhetorical figures are not just superficial decorations to be named and catalogued, they are tools of meaning. I will have more to say about the meaning of some figures in my next post.

5 thoughts on “Meaning and Rhetoric

  1. Hi Bob—thanks for your comment. I’m glad that you enjoy the posts. Anytime you have comments or suggestions, let me know. All the best.


  2. This is so interesting, Matthew. I’ve been thinking about how linguistic structures carry meaning since your last post, and I can’t wait to learn more.
    Your examples of tag questions and cleft constructions introduced expectation and emphasis as kinds of meaning that linguistic structures might carry. The kind of meanings carried by the structures of rhetorical figures seems trickier, if only because your examples show the variety of ways any given structure might be used. Is there a “structure-meaning” that all these uses have in common? Do linguistic structures carry meaning as structures, structures in which other kinds of meaning, like truth-value, can be expressed? And what’s the relationship between the meaning carried by the structure and the meaning that it structures? How do we talk about the difference, for example, between two paragraphs that say the same basic thing, but where one opens with its main idea and develops it and the other one builds up to the idea that is only presented at the end?
    Once we start using the different mental spaces that, as you say, naming rhetorical figures can create, we can start to see how these spaces shape different ideas differently. Does that mean we need another level of meaning – the level of truth-value, the level of linguistic structure, and the level of the interaction between the two, for example the meaning created by speaking of mundane topics in fancy structures?
    I listened to an interesting podcast the other day about the importance of scale and tempo in how we perceive and understand things, in particular our planet and the creatures we share it with. The story ranged from how hearing whale songs brought the plight of whales into human view to how natural language processing that plots every word in a language produces language-clouds for a variety of languages that, from this new distance, seem to share a basic shape.
    It occurred to me that these questions of scale and tempo might be relevant to the way you’re talking about how linguistic structures carry meaning. Perhaps building up from sentences can give us the vocabulary and mental shapes to perceive larger structures that we don’t yet have great ways to talk about.
    I’m also curious about how you think about structures that carry meaning in music, and how that might or might not relate to how linguistic structures carry meaning.


  3. What a great cooment!! Thanks so much. You raise so many fascinating questions, too many to consider in a brief reply. Perhaps some will be addressed in posts still to come. I have thought about all of these questions for many years, but I can’t say I have come to conclusions that would satisfy me, or anyone else. I will get rid of one right away. I have no good thoughts on the meaning of music. That one just leaves me completely befuddled. More later.


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