Bill Long 11/14/04
Insights into Why Chicks Dig Guys who Know Rhetoric
There is no more maddening definition of a rhetorical device in the OED than that for metalepsis. The definition is so horrid, so incomprehensible as to make one almost want to leave the word alone and never come back to it again. But, if you massage the word with some skill, repairing to one of the earliest English treatises on rhetoric for a visual explanation, insight results. Unexpected insight.
While recognizing that metalepsis has its origin in the Greek "metalambano," meaning "to take," the OED defines it as follows: "The rhetorical figure consisting in the metonymical substitution of one word for another which is itself a metonym; (more generally) any metaphorical usage resulting from a series or succession of figurative substitutions." It looks as if the OED derived its opacity from Harold Bloom, who can write a clear sentence when he wants to, when he says, "In a metalepsis a word is substituted metonymically for a word in a previous trope, so that a metalepsis can be called, maddeningly but accurately, a metonymy of a metonymy."
Both the OED and Bloom ought to be spanked and sent to bed without any dessert for thinking that they have given a definition that any normal person could understand. Anytime you are becoming this obscure, it means either you are wrong, you don't know what you are doing or, probably, both.
Attempting to Bring some Clarity
So, where do we go for help? Why not begin with the first systematic English language guide to rhetoric to see if it might help us. This would be George Puttenham's Arte of English Poesie (1589). Perhaps it is fortunate that he wrote just before Shakespeare appeared on the scene lest he be tempted to fill out all his rhetorical examples from him, as do twentieth century rhetorical textbooks. Thus, he gives us a varied fare of classical allusions to illustrate rhetorical devices. He introduces metalepsis under the head of "the figures which we call Sensable, because they alter and affect the minde by the alteration of the sence, and first in single words (3.17)."
He tells us that the "hearers conceit" is "strangely entangled" by the figure of metalepsis. He calls it "the farfet (we would use the word farfetched to mean the same thing), as when we had rather fetch a word a great way off then to use one nerer hand to expresse the matter as well & plainer." Wow. He gives us a picture, which is exactly what we need to recover from metonymy on metonymy of the OED and Bloom. It is a figure for which we have to stretch, a word that therefore has little seeming direct correspondence with the thing being described, but probably requires quite a bit of thought to figure out how the relationship is posited.
Before he gives us an example of metalepsis, he provides a catchy little aside about women. "And it seemeth the deviser of this figure, had a desire to please women rather than men: for we use to say by manner of Proverbe: things farrefet and deare bought are good for Ladies: so in this manner of speach we use it, leaping over the heads of a great many words, we take one that is furdest off, to utter our matte by:" So, that's it. We "leap over" several willing and appropriate words to get to a far off ("farrefet") word to present our meaning. Women like things from far off that are brought to them. Maybe it shows them how much a man loves them that he is willing to take a metaphorical trek to a far-off land to fetch a word for his darling. In any case, if you want to win a woman, use metalepsis.
Puttenham is kind enough to give us several examples, only the first of which I will present here. When Medea curses her first acquaintance with Jason, after he had abandoned her, she says,
"Woe worth the mountaine that the maste bare/ Which was the first causer of ally my care."
Puttenham comments: "Where she might as well have said, woe worth our first meeting, or woe worth the time that Jason arrived with his ship at my fathers cittie in Colchos, when he took me away with him, & not so farre off as to curse the mountain that bare the pinetree, that made the mast, that bare the sailes, that the ship sailed with, which carried her away."
Now we see precisely what metalepsis means. Rather than bemoaning their first meeting or rueing the fact that she fell under his influence, Medea seeks what the philosophers would call the ultimate cause. The culprit is the mountain, that was the place where the tree grew that was cut down to be made into a mast, which mast was affixed to Jason's boat, the boat on which he sailed to the fateful first meeting with Medea. Thus, the device of metalepsis, which Puttenham here illustrates, is the use of a word that is five or six steps removed from the actual, visible source of Medea's distress. Jason causes her distress. Jason has torn her life apart. But she traces her dissatisfaction back to the fons et origo--the tree growing on the far-off mountain.
Chicks dig this, according to Puttenham. They like the man who has gone to a far region and plucked a word, much like the woodsman had plucked the tree to make the mast. Then he can use it in a sense that is several steps removed from the literal point at issue. What is it about "going far off" that seems to stimulate the women? Puttenham never says (other than it is a Proverbe), but maybe the Bible, of all sources, lends some insight.
Isaiah 40-55 arguably presents the most dramatically breathtaking description of divine power found in the Bible. What is characteristic of the great divine power? God is able, like the man in Puttenham, to go to far off lands to get the material for his work.
"Remember this and consider, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done....calling a bird of prey from the east, a man for my purpose from a far country.... (Is. 46:8-11)."
Ah, that must be it. Ability to go to a far off land, to call a "man for my purpose" or to get a word, is a sign of power. And women like men who can demonstrate power. No wonder Puttenham says that this pleases women, even though he attributes it only to a "Proverbe." Now you can see how studying and actually using metalepsis can help a man get a woman. You would never have known that from the OED, would you? But, then again, the OED is a product of Victorian times, and we wouldn't have expected the poor Professor Murray to have focused on the amatory capacities present in metalepsis.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long