I never thought reading about the techniques of rhetoric could be fun but The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth (The Inky Fool) is hilarious. The subject of rhetoric goes back to the Ancient Greeks and they invented a multitude of verbal tricks to entice their listeners to become attentive to the speaker’s way of saying things as well as the content of what they were saying. This book isn’t about the truth or falsity of a speaker’s statements but explores ear-catching and mind-catching turns of phrase.
There are 239 pages, in thirty-nine chapters, with wonderful Greek names like polyptoton, merism, synaesthesia, with definitions and examples. The whole book is a riotous romp through the comedy of the last two and a half millennia of fancified blather.
One of my friends from years ago, back in Berkeley, mentioned one day that he had a degree in rhetoric, and I remember saying something to the effect that it was a degree aimed at lying to win your arguments. There may be a distant odor of truth to that accusation, but that is not the route this book takes. The goal here is to make you more cognizant of your writing and speaking, and help your words become more interesting and more memorable. That is why I am enjoying this book, and why I will attempt to develop some of these fun little devices into personal habits. My simple-minded and a bit selfish reason for doing this is because most people find me boring. Perhaps this will help.
I like to talk about stuff after the hello — how are you feeling, — fine — how are you — fine, … which is a dialogue that some people can carry on for minutes, and consider it a deep conversation when they finally get around to the local weather and the forecast for next week. With the techniques offered in The Elements of Eloquence, it may become possible for me to carry on those inane conversations in a way that becomes exciting, at least for me, and perhaps to my interlocutors. Perhaps these conversations will be an opportunity to practice merism, that is, “words’ for words’ sake: a gushing torrent of invention filled with noun and noun and signifying nothing.” As I write this it seems more likely that I would slip over into blazon – which is a merism too far.
The techniques discussed in this book are made to sound foolish, and to be manipulative of the recipient’s thoughts, mind, and will. But, isn’t every word spoken to another guilty of that, and if that is accepted why shouldn’t we be as adept at becoming interesting as possible?
If your speech be honest it’s fair to be eloquent.