What are Paraprosdokians? – Linguistic U-Turns Resulting in Surprise or Humor

I learned a new word today at work, through a logo style guide of all places. The word is paraprosdokian – a sentence or phrase that ends in a certain way, causing the reader/listener to re-interpret the beginning of the sentence/phrase.

There are lots of lists online, and a majority of them are kind of meh. But the good ones are really good. My favorite that I’ve encountered so far:

“I go to the playground often to watch the children jump up and down and scream, because they don’t know I’m using blanks.” – Emo Philips
“If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.” – Dorothy Parker”

There’s an interesting talk about Paraprosdokians by Toastmaster Mick Coventry, which is worth checking out (but the video is kind of ruined for me by the obnoxious woman in the front row who keeps laughing throughout).

The one thing I really dug about Coventry’s talk is how paraprosdokian can have a kind of direction. Going up, they can be heartfelt or inspirational; going down, they can be biting and darkly humorous.

After learning about this strange and hard to pronounce word, I’ve found myself seeing examples of it in numerous places. In a way, every Your Momma joke is a kind of paraprosdokian. The famous couplet from Stevie Smith’s poem Not Waving But Drowning seems like one as well. Classic one-liners from comedians like Henny Youngman, Steven Wright, and Mitch Hedberg could also fall into this category.

At least… I think so. Paraprosdokians are so interesting to think about that I’m not sure yet if I’m correctly identifying them, or if I just think I’m seeing them everywhere now that I know about them.

A big part of me likes these turns because of my interest in poetry. The best poems, in my opinion, always have some kind of shift or turn to them. I’m not talking about an M. Night Shyamalan kind of twist, but something more subtle and nuanced. I’m reminded of a great quotation from Emily Dickinson: Tell the truth, but tell it slant.

As a final example, I love me some classic Simpsons. And this segment ranks pretty high up on my list of silly bits, which I think also qualifies as a paraprosdokian:

Not Waving But Drowning
Art Film Ending

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Another one (isn’t it?) by Dorothy Parker:
    “Tell him I was too fucking busy–or vice versa.”

    Julie Reply

    • That’s a good one!

      avoision Reply

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