Word of the Week: Syllepsis

The writer Dorothy Parker.

So, avuncular (unclelike), saturnine (sluggish), sybaritic (pleasure-loving), antediluvian (primitive), concomitant (accompanying), uxorious (fawning), lucubrate (laborious studying), vulpine (foxlike), fissiparous (fractious), skeuomorph (look it up yourself), obdurate (stubborn) and how about… syllepsis?

Yes. Syllepsis. Fun. What other word will lead us to a real-live controversy, with visits to both Dorothy Parker and Gary Burghoff?

Gary Burghoff at a convention

Gary Burghoff. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So. My handwritten definition of syllepsis, a noun (the adjective is sylleptic), taken from a crudely stapled archive of memo sheets assembled by my father and sent to me not long ago, is “a figure of speech in which one word modifies two or more others, but in different ways.”

My father, who has long since retired, was apparently known around the office as a logophile (lover of words); colleagues were continually amending official-looking documents with notations of obscure words and, often, whimsical definitions. For instance, scrawled on one routing slip was the word ecdysis; this definition: “act of molting or shedding an outer layer”; and, in a different hand, this one-word summary: “stripteaser.”

For syllepsis, the notes included what is a fairly common, if colorful, example provided by the people who write about these things. It is a saying attributed to the writer Dorothy Parker: “It’s a small apartment. I’ve barely enough room to lay my hat and a few friends.” See? She is doing one thing to her hat and quite another to her friends.

But when I, in due diligence, turned to my copy of Webster’s Fourth, I noticed a wrinkle. Syllepsis — which, by the way, comes between syllabus and syllogism and is on the same page as Sybarite — is defined as “a grammatical construction in which a single word is used in a syntactic relationship with two or more words in the same sentence, though it can agree with only one of them in gender, number or case. (Ex.: either they or I am wrong)”

That is not quite the same thing, is it?

The mention of “grammatical construction” sent me, with my belly button in full pucker, reaching for my handy, trusty copy of Garner’s “Dictionary of Modern American Usage.” Alas, Garner’s entry for syllepsis refers you without comment to the odd-sounding zeugma.

The plot thickens!

But first we flash backward. I set Garner down and consulted Webster’s Fourth again. It defines zeugma as “1 SYLLEPSIS” and “2 a figure of speech in which a single word, usually a verb or adjective, is syntactically related to two or more words, though having a different sense in relation to each. (Ex: The room was not light, but his fingers were).” That matches my notes better, of course. But as I learned from comments on the Web in general and Mr. Garner in particular, there is no broad agreement about the differences between syllepsis and zeugma. Wags try, of course, but Mr. Garner says “the distinctions have been confusing and contradictory.”

In fact, Mr. Garner enjoins the avoidance of syllepsis altogether! “We’re better off,” he writes, “using zeugma in its broadest sense and not confusing matters by introducing syllepsis, a little-known term the meaning of which even the experts can’t agree on.”

Ha! So, there. What a triumph.

  • A word of the week that leads us to a deliciously naughty remembrance of Dorothy Parker.
  • A word shrouded in controversy, and recommended by one expert to be stricken from the lexicon.
  • A blog post with not just one word of the week, but with several: syllepsis, ecdysis and zeugma!
  • But what about Gary Burghoff, you say?

The last entry in my copy of Garner, which I never had cause to notice before, is a reference to a kind of sweetened bread, usually served out of the toaster. Can you guess what it is?

Yes! Zwieback!

As in, Mr. Burghoff’s character Radar O’Reilly’s early complaint about his unease around the then-new commanding officer, Col. Sherman Potter. “It’s like staying with your aunt instead of your mother,” Mr. O’Reilly says. “You gotta say, Please. You can’t dunk your zwieback in your Bosco.”

Ahhh. Bach.

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One thought on “Word of the Week: Syllepsis

  1. Pingback: Word of the Week: Parlous « Patos Papa

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