A reader sent me a link to this invigorating blast by Canadian writer, broadcaster, and lexicographer Bill Casselman (homepage, Autobiohagiography), titled “The Bogus Word Paraprosdokian & Lazy Con Artists of Academe.” Now, before going further, I should say that his attack on the “bogus word” is wildly exaggerated; however dubious its origins, it is definitely in use (in the restricted circles that need a word for “a figure of speech in which a sentence or phrase has a surprise ending”). But Casselman admits this, even while giving it another whack as “an oafish monstrosity with a spurious claim upon ancient authority,” and there is no point going to him for judicious academic assessments—he’s not that kind of writer. He’s a loudmouthed, shoot-from-the-hip smartass in the great tradition of Matt Taibbi and my old friend The Growling Wolf; a lot of people are put off by that kind of writing, but I eat it up, and I am glad to have found this guy.
Now, as for paraprosdokian: it is true, as he says, that it “appears NOWHERE in ancient Greek literature” and “was NEVER an ancient Greek word.” It is also true that it has, most unusually, an accusative ending. But it is not the case that it “was made up by some semiliterate doofus late in the 20th century, then added to lists of rhetorical terms at universities whose departments of classics must have been staffed by brain-dead sluggards and mummified pedagogues.” It was made up by some semiliterate doofus sometime in the nineteenth century (as Casselman acknowledges when presented with the evidence, including a quote from an 1891 issue of Punch: “A ‘paraprosdokian,’ which delights him to the point of repetition”—note, incidentally, the comma inside the quote mark). And while it is not an Ancient Greek word, it is a simple mashing together of the ancient Greek phrase παρὰ προσδοκίαν [para prosdokian] ‘beyond expectation,’ which (in the words of Messrs. Liddell and Scott, who cite Demetrius of Phalerum, Hermogenes of Tarsus, and Tiberius Rhetor) “is used of a kind of joke freq[uent] in Com[edy].” While one might wish the modern noun had been more elegantly formed, I cannot find it in my heart to hate it as much as Casselman does, but I am glad his hatred produced such a magnificently readable patch of prose.


  1. Um, so para prosdokian is a good Greek phrase, used by ancient authors to mean exactly what it’s supposed to mean, but paraprosdokian is “a yahoo’s crude attempt at a bungled classicism”? All this fury over the lack of a space? Another classical phrase about a ridiculus mus comes to mind, frankly.

  2. I can only handle loudmouthed, shoot-from-the-hip smartasses if they ride the rail perfectly. The minute they make a dumb mistake (like the claim that para prosdokian has four roots instead of four morphemes), the whole thing just collapses for me, and the rider becomes just another gahonga in a glass gazebo.

  3. “note, incidentally, the comma inside the quote mark”: indeed, even Mr Punch nods.

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    So much for my heuristic assumption that anything that opaque and polysyllabic ending in -ian will turn out to be an Armenian surname. Are there other examples of prepositional phrases from other languages coming into English as single-unit loanwords? There are certainly some fixed Latin phrases like ad hoc and ex ante which can be used adjectivally in English but are still spelled out as multiple words.

  5. I applaud the writer’s intent, but find myself yawning at his target here. People make up new words all the time based on Greek and Latin roots. That’s a good thing. So they get the forms wrong sometimes. Doesn’t bother me.
    dearieme: I was recently nonplussed to find out that the rules for comma placement are actually a bit more complex in the UK. If a quote phrase naturally ends with some kind of punctuation, the comma goes inside. (Source: The Economist’s Style Guide.) That doesn’t seem to be the case here, but still, interesting.

  6. “So much for my heuristic assumption that anything that opaque and polysyllabic ending in -ian will turn out to be an Armenian surname. ”
    No shit. I learned the same lesson the easy way back when I was doing substitute teaching in middle schools, where it is absolutely crucial for the sub to know the kids’ names. I saw a big long name with -ian on the end and started looking far an Armenian face. Found none, gave up. When I called the role a black girl answered to that name. Later I asked her the origin of her name. It turned out to be Yoruba. I had been looking at the wrong end of the name, obviously. I thanked her and told her that day she had been the teacher.
    Odd thing – she looked very American, the way you cna almost always tell a white American from an European. Later I asked another teacher, who happened to be Igbo, what the dela was. She smiled and said that a large percentage of the people brought to the English colonies had been Yoruba or from that region.

  7. the comma goes inside
    I wonder if that rule holds when there is an apostrophe in the vicinity. Should I really write “Maitre d’,” or instead “Maitre d'”, or something else ? Perhaps this is God’s way of indicating that we shouldn’t talk about Maitre d’s (Maitres d’ ? Maitre ds’ ?) at all.

  8. Maitres des.

  9. On the other hand, the name Motian is so short and natural-looking that people don’t realize it’s Armenian and pronounce it like “motion” (as I wrote here; whatever comments there may have been on that post were eaten by Blogspot, curse its immaterial hide).

  10. But not all Maîtres d’hôtel are also Maîtres des hôtels, surely ? <frets> Oh, I see, you mean to match the English pronunciation “maters deese” !

  11. I noticed that but it wasn’t my intent; I was claiming that if you have a maître d’hôtel and then you have another maître d’hôtel, you have two maîtres des hôtels, on account of no hotel can have two masters. (You wanna cite actual French usage? Cite deez.)

  12. no hotel can have two masters
    That is a profound observation. I knew only that no man can serve two masters. But wait: since one waiter can serve at two hotels, he will have two masters ! The eight-hour day has changed the face of servitude.

  13. If a waiter serves two masters, he will hate the one and despise the other.

  14. Matthew 6:24 had an issue with masters.

  15. Appropriately, there is no waiter shown in Leonardo’s Last Supper. It looks like a buffet occasion anyway.

  16. Are there other examples of prepositional phrases from other languages coming into English as single-unit loanwords?
    I wondered the same, but the only one I can think of is extempore, which is more often spelled as two words. For a non-prepositional phrase, there’s quidnunc. There must be others.

  17. At first I thought Desmoines was an example, but the WiPe tells me it’s Des Moines. Never been there.

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    The etymology of “demure” is apparently uncertain/disputed but one claim is that it comes from Old French “de (bon) murs” where murs = modern French moeurs (I guess = Latin/English “mores”?).

  19. They also serve who only stand and wait.

  20. They also serve hors d’oeuvre.

  21. mollymooly says

    In any case, maitre d’ is an Americanism. (One hit in British National Corpus, from “Hotel Catering & Inst. Manag.”.)
    American double-quotes-first is better because a single end-quote looks the same as an apostrophe, so a Brit ought to write ‘maitre d”, which is confusing. (Though the comma placement is not.)
    I think “logical” punctuation is a recent (post WW2?) trend in BrE. I predict AmE will follow suit too. Many AmE-BrE differences are just temporary lags in propagating a change, though usually AmE is the origin.

  22. They also serve who only stand and wait
    In the best restaurants, or so I’ve heard. At the only ones I can afford, the service slithers up to the table every five minutes to enquire if Sir need anything else.

  23. J.W. Brewer says

    My new favorite opaque/polysyllabic surname (but definitely not Armenian) is that of James V. Kochupazhayamadon, a liquor store owner in Rockland Co., N.Y. who has been in the local news of late because he is facing criminal chares alleging he cheated the state out of >$100K in sales tax revenues. I am unable to even hazard a guess at the language-of-origin of the surname. Conceivably something Dravidian?

  24. I predict AmE will follow suit too.
    Not while I wield the red pencil!
    Conceivably something Dravidian?
    Yeah, I’m guessing Tamil, what with the -zh-. But it seems to occur only in connection with that guy, so it’s probably a distortion of whatever it was in the Old Country, whatever that was.

  25. Are there other examples of prepositional phrases from other languages coming into English as single-unit loanwords?
    My first thought was vademecum, but it’s kind of cheating since the ancients had already seen fit to stick the preposition to the pronoun.

  26. I’m verging on adopting BrE comma placement. It’s ridiculous the way we do it in the US now.
    About prepositional phrases turning into single words, this is quite common in Russian: вдаль, сразу, вместе, вслух, повсюду (which has got to be old, because what’s a всюд?), везде (with its interesting hint at a зде- root for здесь), итд…

  27. British comma/period placement is often used in U.S. technical works to cure ambiguities. For example:

    To delete the current line of text using the vi editor, type “dd”.

    meaning that the user should type d-d. If this were changed to:

    To delete the current line of text using the vi editor, type “dd.”

    the user would very likely type d-d-dot, which deletes two lines of text (dot means “repeat the last command”).

  28. “Are there other examples…?”
    I think “etcetera” is an example. Although it’s not exactly an answer, maybe “facsimile” can be also considered.
    Only as a curiosity.- In Spanish we have two words whose meanings have nothing to do with its origins:
    -“adefesio”, that means sight, a ridiculous person, monstrosity (used to objects). This word came from the Latin “ad Ephesios” used in Latin mass to St Paul’s Epistle to Ephesians.
    -“ sursuncorda”, that means supposed anonymous figure very important. It origin is also the Latin mass “sursum corda” : lift up your hearts!
    Fortunately then the Second Vatican Council arrived.

  29. “Sursuncorda” with that meaning is fabulous ! I am motivated to brush up on my Spanish again, just so I will have an opportunity to slip that word into some conversation.

  30. mollymooly says

    I object to “etcetera” written out in full, except perhaps in reported speech. The truncated “etc.” is a better graphaesthetical match for the incompleteness of the list. It’s more a punctuation mark than a word.

  31. >Mollymooly
    I found that in the Oxford D. and O.E.D. Anyway I’ll ask to “Sursuncorda”. : – )

  32. adlib, from ad libitum.

  33. “Adlib” does not occur as one word in edited text. It is either ad-lib or ad lib.

  34. J.W. Brewer says

    If it wasn’t for those meddling copy editors like hat, we’d have unhyphenated “adlib” by now . . .

  35. Bill Walderman says

    Aren’t Russian vezde and vs’udu both related to ves’/vs’a/vs’o, vs’- being a base form meaning ‘all’? Vez-de ‘everywhere’ and vs’udu are correlative with g-de, where the g- is a voiced form (before -d-) of the interrogative prefix k-, as in kto. Same correlation as vez-de, g-de: vse-gda, ko-gda.

  36. Yup, Bill is correct.

  37. mollymooly, would David Foster Wallace’s “& c.” for “etc.” be any better?

  38. The word “ampersand” has a Latin preposition squeezed into it, yes?

  39. My new favorite opaque/polysyllabic surname … is that of James V. Kochupazhayamadon … Conceivably something Dravidian? Yeah, I’m guessing Tamil, what with the -zh-.

    I believe `kochu’ means `small’ and `pazhaya’ means `old’ in Malayalam. I get several hits for the surname Pazhayamadam and one for Kochupazhayamadam. There also seem to be locations labelled Pazhayamadam on maps of central Kerala. I’m therefore going to guess that it’s Malayalam.

  40. How about percent?

  41. I’m therefore going to guess that it’s Malayalam.
    I’m changing my vote; your examples are compelling.

  42. So does that make здесь a truncated form of *вездесь? Or something? I’m not sure I follow.

  43. “note, incidentally, the comma inside the quote mark”: indeed, even Mr Punch nods.
    I’ve been ploughing through considerable quantities of 18th and 19th century British newspapers since a big slice of the British Newspaper Library’s holdings were released on the web last month, and “comma inside quote” was common: I’d suggest (without any real evidence) that it’s perfectly possible “comma outside” was a rule that only became universal in British publications in the 20th century.
    Keith Ivey – “percent” is American. In BrE we say “per cent”, and it hacks me off to have to add that space four or five times in every AP or AFP or Reuters business story I sub-edit.

  44. So does that make здесь a truncated form of *вездесь? Or something?
    It was сьде in Old Slavic, with prefixed сь = Russian сей ‘this’ (compare где from *kъde, with the same prefix as in кто).

  45. Bill Walderman says

    “It was сьде in Old Slavic, with prefixed сь = Russian сей ‘this’ (compare где from *kъde, with the same prefix as in кто).”
    Is the -s’ on the end simply a reiteration of the s’->z’ at the beginning?

  46. >Grumbly Stu
    To motivate you a bit more (if it’s necessary) other Spanish word with an odd origin I remembered: “galimatías”. It came from French “galimatias” but really from Greek “κατὰ Ματθαῖον”: [gospel] according to Matthew. It’s other example of prepositional phrase that has become a single-unit loanword. It means: gibberish, confusing mass, jumble. The meaning seems to come of the commencement of this gospel because of mess that Matthew wrote when he described the Jesus’ genealogy.

  47. Trond Engen says

    Another “huh?” I didn’t even know it existed outside Norwegian. It’s been identified with gal “mad” and has come to mean “madness; hazardous act”, often written galemattias “mad Matthew”.

  48. >Trond Engen
    Why “another huh?”

  49. Trond Engen says

    Because I had just huhed in another thread.

  50. galimatias
    Speculatively connected with gallimaufry (OED). And why not?
    Alain Rey (Dictionnaire historique) records also a possible connexion with Medieval Latin ballematia (“obscene songs”), with Provençal Galimatié (an imaginary land, by alteration of Arimathie), with influence from galer (“s’amuser, se moquer”; cf. the multivalent and enigmatic galant), and more.
    For the evangeloid ecclesiastical link, cf. English and French kyrielle (OED: “A long rigmarole”); for rigmarole, now that we’re caracoling on a lexicoroll, OED has “Probably a variant of Ragman roll n“.
    “Golem[offering]”, anyone? ☺ A golem is a strange confection too (OED: “In Jewish legend, a human figure made of clay, etc., and supernaturally brought to life; in extended use, an automaton, a robot” from Hebrew for “shapeless mass”).

  51. >Noetica
    Although they don’t speak “ex cathedra”, our academicians write that:
    We also have “kirie” but the meaning is the same that is employed in the mass, although a sense is “llorar los kiries” (cry the kiries = cry a lot).

  52. Trond Engen says

    influence from galer (“s’amuser, se moquer”; cf. the multivalent and enigmatic galant)
    I wondered if there might be contamination from OF galer. In French too. When gala was up at Omniglot recently, I wrote:

    Old French galer “rejoice, make merry” looks as it might be from Germanic galan- “enchant, sing, yell”. That would make gale “merriment” a similar metaphor as enchantment and glamour.

    Germanic galan- is also the origin of No. gal “mad”, dialectally rather galen, original meaning “enchanted”.

  53. Jesús:
    Yes, and that RAE entry refers to the initial genealogy in Matthew, as other sources do for galimatias: a complex and obviously fabricated justificatory kyrielle.
    The galer I mention from Alain Rey is indeed Old French. Rey devotes a page to showing the family tree (more accurate than the evangelist’s) for galant. Gala is in there too, and at the trunk is a “francique” (but read “Germanic”) form wala, branching also to English well. Those tree pages are a feature of Rey’s work; I just wish the print were larger on them! Gratuitiously illegible.
    I recognised galimatias from the title Galimathias Musicum of Mozart’s K 32: a lighthearted galanterie that can be seen and heard here. As I write I’m listening to the fuller Collegium Aureum version, from Harmonia Mundi. Quite the potpourri.
    There is also amphigouri. OED: “A burlesque writing filled with nonsense; a composition without sense, as a Latin ‘nonsense-verse.’ “. We got that from French too.

  54. In modern English (as represented by Webster’s Third New International) it’s amphigory, though it probably survives mainly as respelled for the title of Edward Gorey’s Amphigorey.

  55. Jubal smiled happily. “It won’t be necessary now, as you have let slip – unwittingly, or was it intentional? – the one datum needed before we act. If we do. I can hold them off the rest of the day — but the code word is no longer ‘Berquist.'”
    “What the devil do you mean?”
    “My dear Captain, please! Not over an unscrambled circuit surely? But you know, or should know, that I am a senior philosophunculist on active duty.”
    “Haven’t you studied amphigory? Gad, what they teach in schools these days! Go back to your pinochle game; I don’t need you.”
         —Robert Heinlein, Stranger In a Strange Land

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