Rhetorical Devices VII
Bill Long 11/29/04
Tmesis: Slicing Through Things
Many scholars of rhetoric list a variety of terms that capture the different ways that a speaker or writer can depart from accepted word order to make his or her point more vivid. Just to show you that I am not lying, I will give "Lanham's list," which appear in his brief description of hyperbaton in A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, second ed. (p. 86). He cites: 1) Anastrophe; 2) Cacosyntheton; 3) Epergesis; 4) Hypallage; 5) Hysterologia; 6) Hysteron Proteron; 7) Parenthesis; and 8) Tmesis. Puttenham only has four of these terms (Hyperbaton, Parenthesis, Hysteron Proteron and Hypallage) and Burton adds a few more such as Synchisis and Metathesis. Mosellanus, the 16th century rhetorician whose handbook was widely used then and later, talked of six devices associated with 1) Hyperbaton. He also included 2) Anastrophe; 3) Dialysis; 4) Diacope; 5) Synchisis and 6) Hysteron Proteron.
It is far beyond the scope of this mini-essay to try to sort out these terms. I will not mention some at all, like parenthesis, because this is one rhetorical device that everyone knows. In addition, synchisis will not come in for much mention because it denotes a mixture of words in such a way that utter confusion results. I will leave that device to scholars who, usually unwittingly, can't write to save themselves. Let's start with the easiest one to conceive: tmesis.
I don't think anyone goes around using words that begin with "tm." It just isn't done. But I think that even third-graders would love to get into the pronunciation of the word. Accent is on the first syllable, and the "e" is long. TMEE-sis. Say it again. You know something new. Hold on to it. Be grateful for it. Tmesis is my present to you today. The Greek verb that stands behind it is temno, meaning to "cut" or "prune" or "divide." Thus, the noun tmesis means "cutting" in Aristotle or "ravaging" in Plato. A "tmema" is a "section" or division of a book or longer treatise.
This root stands behind hundreds of medical terms today having to do with cutting. Anytime a doctor wants to cut something out of you, she or he uses a word that ends with "tomy" or "tomic." A splenectomy, for example, slices out the spleen. I don't think you really want me to go into more detail at this point.
So, as we turn to the rhetorical device of tmesis, we know that it has to do with cutting. But how? Dictionaries define it in two or three ways. On the one hand it is defined in the OED as "the separation of the elements of a compound word by the interposition of another word or words." This is also called diacope ("slicing through" or "gash"), one of the terms in Mosellanus' list above. An example of tmesis in this usage is listed in the OED. From 1586, "a division of a word compound into two parts, as, What might be soever unto a man pleasing...for, whatsoever might be..." From 1889: "Forgive the quaint tmesis of his opening line:--How bright the chit and chat!" (instead of "How bright the chit-chat").
But Lanham refers us to a second meaning of the term, even though it isn't attested in the OED. First, he helpfully tells us that it originally meant "the artifical separation of a preposition from its verb in poetry after Homer, especially by the interposition of enclitics and particles." He directs us to the first meaning diacope, which he defines as "repetition of a word with one or a few words in between." He cites Henry Peacham's 1577 Garden of Eloquence for an example of this: "My heart is fixed, O God, my heart is fixed" (Actually this is a quotation of Psalm 57:7). Thus, instead of a intra-word division, it can be a dividing word(s) between identical phrases.
A nice web site also brings us a third meaning for tmesis, which I have not seen otherwise attested: breaking a word into two parts for emphasis, such as, "That request is Im Possible," or, more humorously, "She is certainly Miss Shapen."
Fun with Tmesis
Several examples of this device will conclude the mini-essay. The Century Dictionary quotes the King James Version of II Tim. 4:15. The author is warning the community of people who did him wrong. "Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil...Of whom be thou ware also." This is tmesis for "of whom beware thou also."
But much more modern examples can be cited. I laughed uproariously when seeing an old "Hills Street Blues" TV show. Two of the officers were talking about the dangers of engaging in sex with underage girls. One looked grimly at the other to explain why this was so. He said, "Three words. Statue Tory Rape."
Examples of tmesis are rare because we don't divide words like Greek and Latin, but a few are attractive. Instead of cheering at the activity of one's team which is (finally) catching on to the game, one could say, "Hoo-bloody-ray!" When somebody has told you news that is shocking and arresting, your proper response is "Un-freakin'-believable." My favorite, however, are the variety of words that can be split with the work "fucking" inserted between the gashed parts. When someone asks me how long I was married, I simply now say, "Twenty-fucking-four years." No one has ever asked me to clarify my statement. Everyone immediately knows in general what I mean. No one will forget what I have said.
Thus tmesis is a valuable means for arresting the attention of the reader or hearer. Most scholars thought that tmesis was fading out in English, since the major terms which were split were those of a deep poetic past (e.g., "whensoever" or "whithersoever"). But I think that we are just learning to explore the contours of tmesis in our language today. Words are easily separable, with prefixes and roots able to be lopped off and tons of items, ranging from "freaking" to "fucking," inserted. As a matter of fact, I think that there will be a nationally-recognized comedian who will arise in the 2010s precisely because he has deeply mastered the art of tmesis.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long