The Grammarphobia Blog

A rhetorical sin of omission

Q: I’m trying to track down a term from my days at Power Memorial Academy in New York. I believe it’s praeteritio. Brother Hickey told us in Latin III that it was a rhetorical device for when you say you won’t mention something and then proceed to mention it.

A: The English word for the rhetorical figure you’re talking about is “preterition” (pronounced pret-uh-RISH-un).

The word dates from 1602, and the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as a rhetorical device “in which attention is drawn to something by professing to omit it.”

The use of preterition is easy to spot, since it’s usually introduced by “I needn’t mention …” or “to say nothing of …” or “needless to say …” or “it’s not my intention to …” or something of that nature.

In Trollope’s 1857 novel Barchester Towers, for example, this is how the wife of Bishop Proudie is introduced:

“It is not my intention to breathe a word against the character of Mrs Proudie, but still I cannot think that with all her virtues she adds much to her husband’s happiness. The truth is that in matters domestic she rules supreme over her titular lord, and rules with a rod of iron. Nor is this all. Things domestic Dr Proudie might have abandoned to her, if not voluntarily, yet willingly. But Mrs Proudie is not satisfied with such home dominion, and stretches her power over all his movements, and will not even abstain from things spiritual. In fact, the bishop is henpecked.”

The English term “preterition” ultimately comes from the Latin verb praeterire (to go past). In the third century, the post-classical Latin noun praeteritio came to mean the rhetorical device, according to the OED.

Henry Peacham, in a 1577 treatise on rhetoric, The Garden of Eloquence, coined a short-lived English version of the Latin noun:

Preteritio, when we faine and make as though we would say nothing in some matter, when notwithstanding we speake most of al, or when we say something, in saying we will not say it.”

As we said, the “preteritio” that Peacham used did not last long in English (the OED calls it an “unassimilated borrowing”).

However, “preterition” as well as another term for the same rhetorical device, “paralipsis,” did survive in English.

“Paralipsis” (also spelled “paraleipsis”) entered English in 1550.

The OED says it was borrowed from the post-classical Latin paralipsis, a “rhetorical device of emphasising or drawing attention to something by professing to say little or nothing about it, or affecting to dismiss it (3rd cent.).”

The Latin word came from the Greek paraleipein (to leave out).

The Romans must have used this rhetorical gambit a lot, since they had two words for it—praeteritio and paralipsis. Here are their etymologies.

praeteritio: a passing by or over, from Latin praeter (past or by) + ire (to go)

paralipsis: a leaving aside, from Greek para (aside) + leipein (to leave)

Brother Hickey may have mentioned both of those terms when he discussed the rhetorical device at Power Memorial, an all-boys high school that existed from 1931 to 1984.

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