Tuesday 26 January 2010

Paralipsis and Occultatio

Paralipsis is the most common rhetorical device in domestic arguments. Last night I was walking a dog (not mine) when I passed a young lady haranguing her beau. She was pointing her finger into his face at close range, as though it were a gun, or perhaps as though she were conducting a tiny orchestra that was hidden in his mouth. This digital aggression was accompanied by vocals that went:

'I'm not going to bring up how you were late. Late. By half a [inaudible] hour. Or the time in the bath. I'm not bringing that up. Okay? Because... I don't need to bring all that [inaudible] up because...'

But I was wending my way down the road and didn't hear her reason.

The practice of bringing up the fact that you're not bringing something up is called paralipsis, and that's what this girl was doing. She was listing her boyfriend/husband's faults whilst pointing out how kind it was of her not to list them. She was having her cake and gobbling it up.

There's a bit in Chaucer's Knight's Tale where he spends forty-five lines describing exactly what it is about a funeral that he won't describe. This goes into some detail. He concludes:

I wol nat tellen eek how that they goon
Hoom til Atthenes, whan the pley is doon;
But shortly to the point thanne wol I wende
And maken of my longe tale an ende.

Chaucer's exercise in not-mentioning-what-he's-mentioning can seem even to a Chaucer-lover (like me) a rather pointless and prolix rhetorical exercise. But if you're a nosy, prurient eavesdropper (like me) you realise that that's how people really talk. Paralipsis is an essential part of our language, embalmed in the phrases "not to mention" or "I won't bore you with..."

Now, as somebody is bound to point this out there is a very, very technical distinction between paralipsis and occultatio. Occultatio is the literary, indifferent version of paralipsis where you're not trying to put anyone down, you're just doing it. So Chaucer was using occulatio. However, the two are so closely related that they are oftentimes confused or substitued for each other like the Neville twins.

"Not to mention" can be used for either paralipsis or occultatio. I won't bore you with examples, but needless to say the girl last night was definitely using paralipsis, not to mention her finger.

Eavesdropping made simple

P.S. Many dictionaries call occultatio "occupatio", including the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. This seems to be a mistake (erudite explanation here). Occupatio should be (or was) "pre-empting your opponent's arguments". However, as the mistake is so prevalent and has acquired the authority of print, few would object to the substitution.

P.P.S. By chance I'm just finishing off the fantastic novel Zazie in the Metro. There's a climactic moment when a mysterious character finally decides to reveal all. It goes like this:

   'I shall say nothing of my childhood or of my youth. Let us neither speak of my education, I have none, and I shall speak but little of my schooling, for I had little. On this last point, therefore, that's that. So I now arrive at my military service, on which I shall not dwell. Celibate from my earliest days, Life has made me what I am.'
   He interrupted himself to indulge in a spot of day-dreaming.

And that's all we find out. This doesn't seem to be quite paralipsis or occultatio, so I think I shall call it the Trouscaillon.


  1. I have this little book with a daily inspirational vignette I like to read over coffee and eggs. Today's entry was on words- thought I'd share it:

    "I remember once being at Brandeis, that's where I went to college, and some obnoxious professor was talking to me and used a word I didn't know. And I remember saying to myself, "That's the last time that's ever going to happen." There's no reason that I need to be lorded over by someone just because their vocabulary is bigger."

  2. whats occupatio then

  3. That's an odd question as way back when I was doing The Knight's Tale for A-level my teacher told me that that funeral bit was an example of occupatio. Indeed I was going to write that in the post, but then I googled to check up and found "occupatio" defined as pre-empting an objection while "occultatio" is what Chaucer uses. So I assumed that either my memory or my teacher was wrong. HOWEVER, I've just checked in my Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms and found that they agree with my teacher. HOWEVER, I've just been doing some more googling and have found this very learned-sounding article http://www.jstor.org/pss/437118 from Modern Philology in which he says that occupatio is a mistake and a misreading of occultatio. He cites Quintillian saying as proving that occupatio is another word for procatalepsis in which an oponent's objections are anticipated.

    So, two revisions later, I think my post was correct the first time around.

    Obviously, though, these things get muddied when a mistake (which it appears to have been) has become so common as to be accepted by the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms.

    Thank you for making me check further. I may add a PS to the post.

  4. Another term for this, the one I use in classes, is praeteritio. My "Handlist of Rhetorical Terms" cites the same article Dogberry mentions by HA Kelley arguing that 'occupatio' is a scribal error in the Ad Herrenium and should be retired from use as a synonym for praeteritio/paralepsis/paralipsis/occultatio.

    Re: your distinction between paralipsis and occultatio, I wonder where praeteritio falls on the Insulting Continuum.

  5. The problem with the whole thing is that we moderns attempt to apply a hairsplitting taxonomy to what a few ancients considered to be useful terms. If you imagine people two thousand years hence trying to decide on the exact difference between rock and rock & roll or between hip hop and r&b then you have a pretty good idea of what we're doing with rhetorical terms now.
    Basically, it's all paralipsis. At least, paralipsis is a useful enough term for me.