Rhetorical Devices VI
Bill Long 11/29/04
Right now you are going to see me sidestep a debate that has raged throughout the history of rhetoric, at least since the 1st century C.E. and that is whether the Roman division of all rhetorical devices into tropes and schemes really holds up. As with many things in life, I think that excessive use of abstract terminology hinders our appreciation of the things studied. There will be plenty of time for joining the debate some day in the future (I suppose), but now I am so eager to define and give examples of devices that help make our speech/writing clearer and more powerful that I don't want to get bogged down right in it. As it was, I almost fell into the cranberry bogs in Long Beach WA over the weekend; let's avoid the scheme/trope bog today.
If you do want some category to "hang" things on, however, I will say this. The devices discussed here and in the next essay or two are those that deal, in general, with inverted or broken-up word order. First on the list is the most catchy name, which I assume is completely opaque to most educated readers: hysteron proteron.
Hysteron Proteron is the rhetorical equivalent of the theological truth taught by Jesus that the last shall be first and the first, last. In rhetoric it is a (literally impossible) situation where the idea suggested by the first word (usually a verb) must happen temporally after (hysteron means "latter") the idea suggested by the second word (proteron means "former" or "first"). Thus, the latter word will become the former word. As the Century Dictionary says, "The motive for the use of this figure is to mention first the idea which is the more prominently before the mind." A few quick examples will illustrate it before we play with the concept a bit more.
The "classic" example is from Virgil's Aeneid, where the poet says, "Moriamur, et in media arma ruamus," or "Let us die, and rush into the midst of the fray (2.353)." Shakespeare is a master in the use of hysteron proteron. "Th' Antoniad, the Egyptian admiral,/ With all their sixty, fly and turn the rudder (Antony & Cleopatra 3.10.1-2)." In both instances the verbs are "out of order." You don't die before you go into the fight. You don't "fly" before turning the rudder. But the more vivid or prominent verbs are "die" and "fly."
A biblical example of this is in the highly-charged scene at the Last Supper when Jesus takes the bread and says to his disciples, "Take, eat; this is my body." In fact, the more "normal" way of saying it would be "This is my body. Take it and eat it." Hysteron proteron is a device that allows great immediacy of an important concept. And then, there is the silly or commonplace use of it. "Put on your shoes and socks," the mother intoned. Well, if taken literally, you can imagine the picture!
Wandering around in Hysteron Proteron
In studying the word, however, I looked at the OED, which is my wont, and it quoted Puttenham's use of the term. Consulting Puttenham took me on a short but delightful journey which I would like to share with you. In his discussion of "auricular" devices that may lead to "disorder," Putthem has this to say:
"Ye have another manner of disordered speach, when ye misplace your words or clauses and set that before which should be behind & e converso, we call it in English proverbe, the cart before the horse, the Greeks call it Histeron proteron, we name it Preposterous, and if it be not too much used is tollerable enough, and many times scarse perceivable unlesse the sence be thereby made very abused (Poesie, 142)."
He provides an example or two to make clear what he is saying. "When we had claimde (i.e., climbed) the clifs, and were a shore," means really "When we were come a shore and clymed the cliffs." Or, "My dame that had bred me up and bare me in her wombe," whose hysteron proteron is obvious.
Though the device should be clear by now, look at Puttenham's quotation. It is the "cart before the horse," which the Greeks call "Histeron proteron" and we call "Preposterous." Preposterous? Ah, it began to make sense. The word preposterous is made up of two Latin words, where the "posterus" (the "latter," equivalent to hysteron) is made "pre" (the "former," equivalent to proteron). Sure enough, when I checked out the OED definition of preposterous, the first definition read as follows: "Having or placing last that which should be first; inverted in position or order." The second definition of preposterous then brings us into something more familiar: "Contrary to the order of nature; monstruous; irrational; perverse." Thus when we say something is preposterous, we mean that it is impossible, irrational or utterly absurd but the link back to hysteron proteron comes through something that is contrary to nature or out of order.
More Fun with Preposterous/Hysteron Proteron
The word preposterous and the image of the cart before the horse also led me to two other words/phenomena of which I was ignorant. Since preposterous means "inverted in position or order," preposterously suggests "in an inverted or reversed order," and was once used to describe a manner of birth where the feet come out first. From 1589, "Those that are called Agrippae being preposterously borne with their feete forward." Wow, but this introduces us to one more concept: Agrippa as not simply referring to a person but to a mode of birth--feet first. Just as Julius Caesar bequeathed his name to the modes of birth (a Ceasarean section), so Agrippa, a much less famous king, apparently did also. I, for one, want to bring Agrippa back into the delivery room!
One more example of the literary "expansion" of hysteron proteron is not only amusing, but shows us how the best writers let their minds "play" with words and images. No doubt having Puttenham's image of the "cart before the horse" in his mind, Samuel Taylor Coleridge invented a verb, hystero-proterize, and used it in 1834: "We must explain the force of the horse by the motion of the cart-wheels, and hystero-proterize with a vengeance!"
If you study this essay closely, and let yourself play with the rhetorical device just mentioned, you can, like God, create new worlds.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long