An aposiopesis of the furious kind

From Samuel Beckett’s first novel, Murphy:

He broke into a sweat, lost all his yellow, his heart pounded, the garret spun round, he could not speak. When he could he said, in a voice new to Ticklepenny:

‘Have fire in this garret before night or—’

He stopped because he could not go on. It was an aposiopesis of the purest kind. Ticklepenny supplied the missing consequences in various versions, each one more painful than any that Murphy could have specified, terrifying taken all together.

Aposiopesis /ˌæpəsaɪəˈpiːsɪs/ “APuh-SYuh-PEE-sis” (audio) is a fancy rhetorical term for a familiar act: an abrupt breaking off of a thought, mid-sentence, often because of overwhelming emotion. Aposiopeses is the plural form, aposiopetic the adjectival.

The word entered English in the 1570s from Latin, which took it from the Greek aposiōpēsis, from aposiōpan, “to become silent”; siōpē means “silence”. In writing it is signalled by an em dash, as in Beckett, above, or by an ellipsis, as used by P.G. Wodehouse in The Adventures of Sally:

“So…” said Mr. Carmyle, becoming articulate, and allowed an impressive aposiopesis to take the place of the rest of the speech. A cold fury had gripped him.

Sometimes the speaker continues with a separate thought (“Why I oughta— C’mere you little—”); the critical thing is that one thought is interrupted because the speaker is unable or unwilling to finish the sentence.

The Simpsons has a famous recurring example: “Why you little—!”

13 Responses to An aposiopesis of the furious kind

  1. steve says:

    This fine word was the solution to a crossword clue, cited (if memory serves, but it may not) in Simon Goldhill’s “Language Sexuality Narrative: the Oresteia”, which ran thus:

    To be, or not to be. That is the—

  2. Stan says:

    That’s a good clue. Thanks, Steve!

  3. wisewebwoman says:

    Well Stan, you’ve nailed it.

    That’s the way my mind works. Most of the time. And now I can brag:

    “Aposiopesis!”

    XO
    WWW

  4. I do this sometimes if I’m required to be introspective (“I just don’t want to be–“; “I’m tired of all the–“; “I wish you wouldn’t–“). It’s occasionally been a source of tension between me and my mother, where she wants me to supply the missing word and I think the direction it points in is pretty obvious, even if I can’t name it.

    Of course, there are things other than aposiopesis that are punctuated exactly the same as aposiopesis. For example, when a sentence is interrupted by another speaker, as in a script. That’s what I expected this blog post to be about the first time I first glanced at it, before I read it properly. In a very abstract sense it’s the same thing, I suppose, insofar as the workings of one’s own mind can be regarded as interruptions of a different sort.

  5. Thank you. A cool new word for my vocabulary.
    Aposeopesis. Aposeopesis. Aposeopesis. That should make it stick.

  6. Stan says:

    WWW: You never know when you might want to name the thing.

    Adrian: How obvious something is can vary a lot from one person’s point of view to another, I suppose, and sometimes even when something is fairly obvious we want it made explicit anyway. But breaking off or trailing off is its own kind of communication. You’re right that aposiopesis is punctuated identically to interruption by someone else, and I like your observation that in a sense they’re the same thing: the act and fact of interruption is central, whether we do it ourselves or have it occur to us.

    Ashley: You’re very welcome. I had to repeat it to myself too, in order to make it stick. Note that its spelling requires -sio- in the middle, not -seo-. I’ve tweaked the phonetic rendering in the post to make its pronunciation a little clearer.

  7. […] An aposiopesis of the furious kind – I learned a new word today: Aposiopesis […]

  8. […] The example he cites is when Homer says “Why you little. . .”, and there’s YouTube. It’s YouTube badly infected with Zombie Simpsons, but that’s hardly the fault of “aposiopesis”. […]

  9. Whoops. Aposiopesis. Aposiopesis. Aposiopesis. :)

  10. John Cowan says:

    Related, but not the same:

    “William…Shatner…is an actor….who speaks…with a great…deal…of hesitation.”

    And speaking of ellipses, Beckett’s first published work was on Finnegans Wake published in 1929 as the lead-off to an essay collection called Our Exagmination round his Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress. The essay was titled “Dante…Bruno.Vico..Joyce”, where the eccentric style of the dots represents the elapsed time between these gentlemen, one dot per century.

  11. I’m currently reading a novel called “The Solitude of Prime Numbers” by Paolo Giordano.
    I haven’t found an example of aposiopesis but an example of someone describing it and because I learnt that word from you, Stan, I immediately thought of you.
    Here it is:
    “His mother often abandoned her sentences halfway through, as if she had forgotten what she was going to say as she was saying it.” :)

  12. Stan says:

    John: Very interesting. I don’t remember reading about those dots before, unless it was in Ellmann and I’ve forgotten.

    Thanks for sharing that, Ashley! It’s a good example.

  13. […] last line, which shows he’s being interrupted, is a stylistic device known technically as aposiopesis. An em dash is also commonly used in this […]

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