On Paralepsis (Part Two)

One of my favourite words is paralepsis (I’ve even talked about it before). It’s a word from the ancient study of rhetoric and it essentially means that you state loudly the subjects that you’re not going to talk about – in the process bringing what you’re omitting into the forefront of people’s consciousness. Here’s an example:

“Let’s not get bogged down here… Let’s pass swiftly over the vicar’s predeliction for cream cakes. Let’s not dwell on his fetish for Dolly Mixture. Let’s not even mention his rapidly increasing girth… No no – let us instead turn directly to his recent work on self-control and abstinence…”

It’s an immensely satisfying and highly entertaining piece of verbal fun, even if it is also a bit of a blunt instrument. Paralepsis is a collision of statement with intent – it presents itself both as an obvious paradox and as the extension of language’s ability to use fragments of fact to allude to larger and more involved passages or narratives – the paralepsis is a signpost that there’s more going on here than the person’s in a position to talk about, even as he or she talks about it. It’s an insidious move as well as a revelatory one, and it reveals one of the greatest difficulties of speaking the truth – that even if one doesn’t lie one can easily mislead. This is the terrible sin of ‘lying by omission’ – of using carefully selected and accurate information in such a way that totally mischaracterises the situation in hand. And an extension of that is the way self-censorship tries to stop individual people making connections of this kind. We all need a weird kind of internal paralepsis, perhaps, to make those connections that we don’t want to make out loud – or perhaps we feel we can’t…

Which is all, in its way, merely an introduction to one of the most blatant, glorious and important use of paralepsis I’ve seen in my life. From the Onion: I Should Not Be Allowed To Say The Following Things About America

P.S. For the Americans amongst us, “Dolly Mixture” is a peculiarly British kind of sweet that traditionally you would buy in small paper bags by weight from large glass (or later plastic) bottles held behind the counter. I can find little about their origins online, but I believe they got their name by being small enough to look like food for dolls’ tea parties and the like. Shamefully, they are a personal favourite.