An aposiopesis of the furious kind

December 7, 2011

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—!”



October 25, 2011

On Twitter some time ago, I had a chat with Kory Stamper and Jeremy Kahn about the plural of octopus (octopuses? octopi? octopodes?)

This prompted Jeremy to write a rhyme, Plurals of the many-footed, in which he posed the question: “Would they think us all wusses / not to embrace the octopuses?”

I responded with eight hurried lines of nonsense, reproduced here for the pleasure (or more likely pain) of posterity:

Octopodes, they swim not run,
They have a beak but not a bill.
Larger things they tend to shun,
Littler things they tend ta kill.
But what an octopus might think –
Whether singular or plural –
Is hidden in a cloud of ink
Obscuring all things cephaloneural.

Jeremy’s post links to Kory’s helpful and popular video for Merriam-Webster about the various plurals of octopus, and to an excellent Stæfcræft & Vyākarana post on the same subject.

To these I will add this useful discussion at bradshaw of the future, who notes that “usage trumps etymology every time”.

I prefer the plural octopuses, except where rhyme or rhythm warrant one of the alternatives. An adequate summary of their merits would require several paragraphs, which would be pointless given the links above: all are worth a moment of your time, if the topic interests you.

Wikipedia also has a decent, well-referenced account.