The Grammarphobia Blog

A rhetorical question

Q: Whenever I hear the word “rhetoric,” it’s in reference to inane, worthless speech, as in “empty political rhetoric.” Yet my dictionary renders a completely different meaning: the art of using language effectively. What’s with that?

A: Politicians and hucksters have given “rhetoric” a bad name, that’s what! It used to be considered a noble endeavor, one of the seven “liberal arts” of the Middle Ages.

The Oxford English Dictionary primarily defines “rhetoric,” which entered English in the 1300s, as “The art of using language so as to persuade or influence others; the body of rules to be observed by a speaker or writer in order that he may express himself with eloquence.”

What’s often missing today is the eloquence, but this isn’t especially new or surprising. Nor is the dismissive meaning of “rhetoric.” The word has been used for several hundred years to refer to artificial or ostentatious language.

An OED citation from 1570, for example, refers to “rashe ragged Rhetorike” and one from 1615 to “gaudy Rhetoricke.” Milton, Swift, Cowper, and Macaulay used the term in a disparaging way over the next two centuries. And Swinburne, in an 1880 monograph, refers to the “limp loquacity of long-winded rhetoric.” Could he have been guilty of it himself?

Although both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list the traditional definition in their entries on “rhetoric,” they also include meanings that are somewhat less admirable.

M-W, for example, says “rhetoric” may refer to “insincere or grandiloquent language,” while AH says it may be used for language that’s “elaborate, pretentious, insincere, or intellectually vacuous.”

Someone accused of displaying “rhetoric” today is probably not being complimented. I’m glad Aristotle (whose Rhetoric I read as a philosophy major in college) isn’t around to hear it.

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