You may not be familiar with the word "paraprosdokian," but you've almost certainly heard one. The Macmillan Dictionary defines a paraprosdokian as “a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to re-frame or re-interpret the first part.” It’s a strange word, but in Greek — from which it derives — it makes perfect sense: It comes from “παρά,” meaning “against” or “despite,” and “προσδοκία,” meaning “expectation.”
One of the oldest, oft-cited paraprosdokians comes from the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who wrote, “On his feet he wore… blisters.” “Blisters,” here, is the subversion of our expectations, as we’d normally expect someone to be wearing shoes, or sandals, on their feet.
The Aristotle example isn’t a side-splitter by any means, but paraprosdokians are frequently used for their comic effect by comedians and satirists. Politicians have also used paraprosdokians when looking for a laugh, whether poking fun at themselves or at others. Here are some classic examples of funny paraprosdokians, from Abraham Lincoln to Homer Simpson.
If I were two-faced, would I be showing you this one?
— Abraham Lincoln
Everybody laughed when I said I wanted to be a comedian. Well they're not laughing now.
— Bob Monkhouse, comedian
I have had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.
— Often attributed to Groucho Marx, but was in use before he made the remark
Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.
— Mark Twain
There are a terrible lot of lies going about the world, and the worst of it is that half of them are true.
— Winston Churchill
Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.
— Attributed to Groucho Marx
He’s a writer for the ages — the ages of four to eight.
— Dorothy Parker
Gentlemen. You can't fight in here. This is the War Room!
— President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) in "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb"
People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.
— Often misattributed to Winnie the Pooh, despite being in circulation in various forms since at least 1906
I backed a horse today, twenty-to-one. It came in at twenty past four.
— Tommy Cooper, comedian
I also remember something that Thomas Jefferson once said. He said, “We should never judge a president by his age, only by his works.” And ever since he told me that, I’ve stopped worrying.
— Ronald Reagan
The day after New Hampshire, I went home and slept like a baby. Every two hours I woke up and cried.
— Bob Dole
People say I’m indecisive, but I don’t know about that.
— George H.W. Bush
When I was a kid my parents moved a lot, but I always found them.
— Rodney Dangerfield
I haven’t slept for ten days, because that would be too long.
— Mitch Hedberg
Behind every great man... is a woman rolling her eyes.
— Bruce Nolan (Jim Carey) in "Bruce Almighty"
If I had to name my greatest strength, I guess it would be my humility. Greatest weakness, it's possible I may be too awesome.
— Barack Obama
She thinks I’m too critical. That’s another fault of hers.
— Lucille Bluth (Jessica Walter) in "Arrested Development"
If I could just say a few words… I'd be a better public speaker.
— Homer Simpson (Dan Castellaneta) in "The Simpsons"
Photo credit: Dave Hoefler/ Unsplash