Apophasis is a rhetorical device wherein the speaker or writer brings up a subject by either denying it, or denying that it should be brought up. Accordingly, it can be seen as a rhetorical relative of irony. Also called "paralipsis," apophasis is usually employed to make a subversive ad hominem attack, which makes it a frequently used tactic in political speeches to make an attack on one's opponent. Using apophasis in this way is often considered to be bad form.
The device is typically used to distance the speaker from unfair claims, while still bringing them up. For instance, a politician might say, "I don't even want to talk about the allegations that my opponent is a drunk." It can also be used in denying such claims entirely, for example by saying "I'm sure that my opponent is not lying; however, his grasp of the facts seems to be shaky."
The word is Late Latin, from Greek ἀπόφασις from ἀπόφημι apophemi, "to say no". Other names include paralipsis (παράλειψις) or occupatio, also spelled paraleipsis or paralepsis, and known also as praeteritio, preterition, cataphasis (κατάφασις), antiphrasis (ἀντίφρασις), or parasiopesis (παρασιώπησις).
When paralipsis is taken to its extreme, then proslepsis occurs, whereby the speaker provides full details stating and/or drawing attention to something in the very act of pretending to pass it over; for example, "I will not stoop to mentioning the occasion last winter when our esteemed opponent was found asleep in an alleyway with an empty bottle of vodka still pressed to his lips."
Paralipsis was often used by Cicero in his orations. For example:
"Obliviscor iam iniurias tuas, Clodia, depono memoriam doloris mei" ("I now forget your wrongs, Clodia, I set aside the memory of my pains [that you caused].")
"It would be superfluous in me to point out to your lordship that this is war."
"Ssh," said Grace Makutsi, putting a finger to her lips. "It's not polite to talk about it. SO I won't mention the Double Comfort Furniture Shop, which is one of the businesses my fiance owns, you know. I must not talk about that. But do you know the store, Mma? If you save up, you should come in some day and buy a chair."
As a rhetorical device it can serve various purposes which are often dependent on the relationship of the speaker to the addressee and the extent of their shared knowledge. Apophasis is rarely literal; instead, it conveys meaning through implications that may depend on this context. As an example of how meaning shifts, consider the English phrase "needless to say." Literally it invokes shared understanding, yet its actual meaning will depend on whether that understanding was really shared. The speaker is alleging that it's not necessary to say something because the addressee already knows it, but do they? If they do, it may merely emphasize a pertinent fact. If it is true but the knowledge is weighted with history, it may be an indirect way of levying an accusation ("needless to say, because you are responsible"). If the addressee does not actually already possess the knowledge, then it may be a way to condescend: the speaker suspected as much but wanted to call attention to the addressee's ignorance. Conversely it could be a sincere and polite way to share necessary information which the addressee may or may not know without implying that the addressee is ignorant.
An example of this last type of paralipsis/paralepsis — where it serves to politely avoid suggestion of ignorance — is found in the narrative style of Adso of Melk in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, where the character fills in details of early fourteenth-century history for the reader by stating it is unnecessary to speak of them.[example needed]
With proper names
When it is taboo to speak of an entity by name, an epithet or sobriquet can be used in place of the name. For example, when it was forbidden in Myanmar to speak the name of political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, she was commonly referred to as "The Lady". Various names of God in Judaism are used to avoid writing or speaking sacred names. The name of the fictional Lord Voldemort in the popular Harry Potter universe is taboo, and he is commonly referred with epithets such as "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named" and "You-Know-Who".
In 1988, as Ronald Reagan’s second presidency was coming to an end, he was questioned on rumors about Michael Dukakis, one of his political party’s opponents in the upcoming presidential race. When asked about the allegations that Dukakis had received psychological treatment in the past, Reagan responded by saying with a smile, “Look, I’m not going to pick on an invalid". Reagan utilizes apophasis as a rhetorical device in an attempt to cover his tracks by pretending he did not want to make a comment on Dukakis; however, his comment stirred up a lot of media attention. Times Magazine on August 15, 1988 reported, “[The] tasteless wisecrack Reagan delivered last week ignited a minor political storm". In fact, this “insensitive remark” went on to be “an important jumpstart” for the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Examples can also be found in entertainment, like in the 1972 movie, “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.” The main character, Roy Bean, must apologize to the court marshal’s wife and friends for calling them whores. “I understand you have taken exception to my calling you whores. I’m sorry. I apologize. I ask you to note that I did not call you callous-ass strumpets, fornicatresses, or low-born gutter sluts. But I did say ‘whores.’ No escaping that. And for that slip of the tongue, I apologize.” In this example, the orator apologizes for calling the audience one rude name, but laced in his apology he also calls them three other far more degrading names. The orator exemplifies the use of apophasis by hiding his hurtful comments with a disclaiming intention as if calling them those names is the last thing he is trying to do.
- Baird, A. Craig; Thonssen, Lester (1948). "Chapter 15 The Style of Public Address". Speech Criticism, the Development of Standards for Rhetorical Appraisal. Ronald Press Co. p. 432.
- Safire, William (October 9, 1988). "ON LANGUAGE; Debatemanship". The New York Times.
- "Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon". Perseus Digital Library. Tufts University. Retrieved 7 April 2013.
- "apophasis". Dictionary.com. Retrieved 1 June 2011.
- Kathryn L. Lynch (2000). Chaucer's Philosophical Visions. Boydell & Brewer Ltd. pp. 144–. ISBN 978-0-85991-600-4. Retrieved 22 May 2013.
- Anthony David Nuttall (1980). Overheard by God: fiction and prayer in Herbert, Milton, Dante and St. John. Methuen. p. 96. Retrieved 22 May 2013.
- Fārūq Shūshah; Muḥammad Muḥammad ʻInānī (al-Duktūr.) (2003). Beauty bathing in the river: poems. Egyptian State Pub. House (GEBO). p. 19. Retrieved 22 May 2013.
- K. V. Tirumalesh (1999). Language Matters: Essays on Language, Literature, and Translation. Allied Publishers. p. 113. ISBN 978-81-7023-947-5. Retrieved 22 May 2013.
- Burton, Gideon O. "paralipsis". Silva Rhetoricae: The Forest of Rhetoric. Brigham Young University. Archived from the original on 25 May 2011. Retrieved 1 June 2011.
- Eco, Umberto (1984). "Postscript to the Name of the Rose". The Name of the Rose. Translated by William Weaver. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. p. 39. Eco and Weaver use the spelling paralepsis or "passing over" for the phenomenon.
- Michael Dukakis
- Smyth, Herbert Weir (1984) . Greek Grammar. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. 680. ISBN 0-674-36250-0.
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