Parapros . . .What??

Photo by Braydon Anderson on Unsplash

I never encountered paraprosdokian before, but I liked it as soon as we met.

David Bordwell introduced us, by way of his 2016 book, The Rhapsodes: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture. Bordwell, one of my husband’s favorite critics, died a couple of weeks ago, and I overheard as John listened to a discussion of the book online.

James Agee, one of Bordwell’s subjects, piqued my interest. I love Agee’s novel A Death in the Family (1957), as I do his 1941 non-fiction examination of Depression-era sharecropping families, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (an affection I share with Jimmy Carter). Agee is one of four film critics Bordwell discusses, the others being Otis Ferguson, Manny Farber, and Parker Tyler.

It’s Farber who most often employs paraprosdokian, sentences that do a 180-degree turn at the end. Here’s an example: “Stalag 17 is a crude, cliche-ridden glimpse of a Nazi prison camp that I hated to see end.” Agee, too, tries his hand: “Stage Door Canteen is a nice harmless picture for the whole family, and it is a gold mine for those who are willing to go to it in the wrong spirit.”

You can probably guess the word’s roots are Greek. (That k is a giveaway.) Coined around 1896, the compound consists of para-, meaning “against,” and prosdokia, meaning “expectation.” A paraprosdokian sentence has a surprise ending, in which the end of the sentence causes you to reevaluate the beginning.

Groucho Marx (see photo above) pumped out some famous ones. “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.” Also, “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read,” often attributed, at least, to Groucho.

Noted wits Dorothy Parker and Will Rogers used the device. Guess which one is whose: “If all the girls attending the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised” and “I don’t belong to an organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”

Read more good ones here. Tell us your favorites in the comments, or, even better, share some of your own!

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2 Responses to Parapros . . .What??

  1. Michael Whitely says:

    Almost anything by James Blunt on Twitter, turning people’s hate back on them, but this one fits the sentence form:
    During lockdown, while many other artists are doing mini-concerts from their homes, I thought I’d do you all a favour and not.

  2. Sarah Becker says:

    I may be wrong, but I doubt it.
    Charles Barkley

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