January 18th, 2010

Life, the Universe, and Rhetoric

This isn’t a word I use a lot but I’ve felt fairly confident in its place in my vocabulary since undergrad. But, like I said in the vocab post earlier this week, once I *think* I know what a word means, why would I ever look it up unless someone challenges or corrects me? Which is not precisely what happened in that post, but a few people I think might be smarter than I did mention they were impressed that I am comfortable using such a word…which immediately made it uncomfortable.

So let’s do it: here’s how I use the word rhetoric on the rare occasions on which I do:

Rhetoric is presentation or argumentation of an issue, theory, or concept. Rhetoric is *not* synonymous with the thing itself; it is synonymous with the words used to present that thing, from a given point of view, in a given style, and from a given agenda. For example, the rhetoric around breast cancer from the “pink ribbon campaign” has a personal, gently feminist tone and focuses a great deal on personal empowerment, separate from medical intervention. My rhetorical presentation of PC brand dulce de leche banana cream pie involved a lot of religious, divine-revelation-style language, but really it is just a pie.

Ok, that’s how I’ve been using it–let’s see if I’m right. To do this, I turn to M. H. Abrams’s A Glossary of Literary Terms, the source of most of my knowledge that doesn’t come from The New Yorker, Facebook, or something someone told me that I sorta half remember.

Mr. Abrams uses a lot of history, including figures like Aristotle and “the Roman rhetorician Quintillian” (no idea, and I’m not even going to link, because I would have no idea if I’d got the right link or not). Eventually he distills down to “In a general sense, then, rhetoric can be described as the study of language in its practical uses, focusing on the effects of language, especially persuasion, and on the means by which one can achieve these effects on auditors or readers.

Whew. So I think this means I’ve got it about right. More or less. If anyone feels like chiming in, to add or critique, feel free–my advice by itself is not worth a whole lot, at least not on complex topics like this. On simple topics like, for example, whether you should buy the book and/or the pie mentioned above, you should totally listen when I say: yes, both, resoundingly!!

There are too many colons in this post.


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