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Paralipsis

Updated Feb 22, 2023

The Power of Paralipsis: A Rhetorical Device That Speaks Without Speaking

Have you ever wanted to say something but decided not to mention it explicitly? If so, you might have used a rhetorical device called paralipsis, which allows speakers or writers to draw attention to a subject by pretending to ignore it. Paralipsis, also known as apophasis or praeteritio, is a powerful tool that can create intrigue, emphasize a point, or subtly criticize an opponent. In this article, we will explore the art of paralipsis and examine how it has been used throughout history.

What is Paralipsis?

Derived from the Greek word "paraleipein" meaning "to leave to the side," paralipsis is a rhetorical device that involves highlighting a subject by deliberately pretending to ignore or omit it. By stating that something will not be discussed or acknowledged, speakers or writers paradoxically draw attention to the very topic they claim to avoid. Through this technique, they can convey a hidden message or subtly shift the focus of the discussion without explicitly stating their intentions.

The Power of Implied Meaning

One of the key strengths of paralipsis is its ability to imply meaning or insinuate ideas without directly stating them. By using this rhetorical device, speakers or writers can leave room for interpretation, which can lead to more nuanced and thought-provoking discussions. Let's explore a few examples to illustrate this point:

  1. Political Campaigns: During election campaigns, candidates often employ paralipsis to attack their opponents indirectly. For instance, Candidate A might say, "I won't mention the numerous scandals my opponent has been involved in." This statement not only sparks curiosity but also invites listeners to fill in the gaps and consider their opponent's alleged misdeeds.

  2. Gossip and Rumors: Paralipsis is also commonly used in informal conversations when discussing rumors or sensitive topics. Imagine a group of friends discussing a celebrity's rumored affair. One friend might say, "I don't want to spread gossip, but I've heard some interesting things about their personal life." By using paralipsis, they can still indulge in gossip while maintaining a facade of discretion.

  3. Marketing Strategies: Advertisers often employ paralipsis to create intrigue and generate interest in their products or services. An advertisement for a luxury car might say, "We won't mention the incredible speed and advanced technology that this vehicle offers." By leaving out explicit details, the ad prompts potential buyers to imagine the car's impressive features, sparking curiosity and desire.

Historical Examples of Paralipsis

Paralipsis has been a favorite rhetorical device among politicians, writers, and orators throughout history. Here are a few notable examples:

  1. William Shakespeare: In Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, Mark Antony uses paralipsis in his famous speech at Caesar's funeral: "I come not, friends, to steal away your hearts." By claiming he does not aim to win the crowd's affection, Antony cleverly appeals to their emotions and ultimately turns public sentiment against Caesar's assassins.

  2. Abraham Lincoln: In his iconic Gettysburg Address, Lincoln states, "We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground." By listing what "we cannot" do, Lincoln emphasizes the importance and sacredness of the very task he claims to be unable to fulfill. This use of paralipsis adds depth and emotional weight to his words.

  3. George Orwell: In Orwell's dystopian novel 1984, the ruling party uses paralipsis as a propaganda technique. Their slogan, "War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength," paradoxically highlights the party's manipulation of language and their ability to control the narrative by stating the opposite of the truth.

Conclusion

Paralipsis is a powerful rhetorical device that allows speakers and writers to say more by saying less. By intentionally omitting or pretending to ignore a subject, they can draw attention to it, create intrigue, or subtly convey meaning. Whether used in political debates, informal conversations, or literary masterpieces, paralipsis has proven to be an effective tool for engaging audiences and shaping narratives throughout history. Next time you encounter a statement that claims not to mention something, pay close attention – the unsaid might be just as important as the said.

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