Grouping Rhetorical Terms
I have long been fascinated with public speaking and the tradition of rhetoric, going back to ancient Greece, that gave it birth. The Greek rhetorical tradition was a product of the Fifth Century (B.C.E) Athenian efflorescence in the wake of their victory in the Persian Wars. Not only was there development in political theory, architecture and drama, but the sophistic movement claimed to be able to train people to speak effectively in the new world of democratic Athens. Rhetorical techniques (with accompanying terms), which were generally attacked by Plato even as he used some of them in his dialogues, then entered into our Western heritage. Because rhetoric bulked so large also in Roman civilization, and was discovered by eager Renaissance scholars, the sheer number of rhetorical terms that have come down to us is staggering. In addition, there often is little distinction between and among terms, because at least two or three languages generated them (thus macrologia is identical to perissologia, both being terms for "longwindedness").
Yet sometimes we can group the words in threes or (as here, fours--I am just so eager that it is hard to confine myself to threes!) to expresses grades of feeling or verbal response to common life situations. By having words to describe the graded array of our reactions, we think more precisely about our emotions and thoughts.
Four Verbal Reactions to Someone
The words I give here represent four ways to respond critically to someone. We can respond with charientism(us), asteism(us), mycterism(us), or sarcasm.
Charientism is the hardest of the four for me to specify because the definitions don't always agree with each other. The OED has "gracefulness of style, expression of an unpleasant thing in a pleasant style." Anyone who has ever studied New Testament Greek can see the word "Charis" behind it, which is the central NT term for "grace." So, charientism appears simply to be an ability to speak graciously, and even to "cover over" the rough spots or unpleasant realities of the moment with smooth speech. Thus, a diplomat would need to practice charientism regularly. In classical Greek the term charientismos describes a person who is a wit or jester.
It can also refer to someone who is "charming." One who is a charientismos is opposite to someone who speaks in a piercing, sharp, hasty or earnest manner. In his online rhetoric, Professor Burton defines the term as "mollifiying harsh words by answering them with smooth and appeasing mock." Maybe. The root concept, however, seems to be the "charm" of the person responding, who is able by the calm and even gently ironic or humorous manner to "take the sting" out of what has been said. It is a very valuable verbal skill to have.
Literally, asteism means "town bred," and then, by extension, "witty" or "charming" or "refined" or "elegant." It is meant to contrast with someone as we would say "from the sticks," who doesn't really know the finer points of refined living, much less speaking. The OED defines it as "genteel irony, polite and ingenious mockery." One 18th century source defines it as a "handsome way of deriding another." It is a harmless way of criticizing another in which a person may throw back a word first spoken by another by giving an unexpected twist to it.
Thus, I tend to distinguish charientism from asteism in that the former stresses the charming nature of a person's bearing and response, or his/her ability to calm a rough situation with mollifying words, while the latter suggests to me a technique of gentle criticism of another by using refined language and interesting turns of phrase to expose disagreement with /inconsistency of/muddleheadedness of the other. Whereas charientism tends to diminish or drain the emotion out of a potentially difficult situation, asteism is a skill that subtly provokes emotion through gentle criticism.
But not all criticism is gentle or subtle. Mycterism may be defined as a disdainful gibe or scoff. The origin of the word creates a picture that captures its essence. The Greek word underlying mycterism is "mykter," which means "nose" or "nostril." Thus mycterism is that motion of the face in which the nose is employed to express a sneering disdain. Look at people's faces when they speak. Look at how the nose moves when a person derides another. Mycterism then is the word that originates in this nose movement but is meant to suggest a harder, more unsympathetic and more disdainful assessment of another person, manifest perhaps in the scrunching up of the nose or twisting of the facial features. One iluminating example of its usage from 1900 is helpful: "a kind of derision which is dissembled, but not altogether concealed." Thus, there may well be an element in mycterism that still wants to hide itself a bit, even though it is not fully able to do so. Unlike asteism, where a person's "urbanity" tends to cover over or obscure the ridicule or scorn in which the speaker holds another, mycterism doesn't permit such concealment.
Sarcasm is the most familiar of these four rhetorical devices and actually is the most verbally severe. It derives from two Greek words meaning "cutting flesh," and so the sarcastic person in engaged in "sharp, bitter, or cutting expression or remark." Sarcasm is a "bitter gibe or taunt." None of the attempted concealment in asteism or mycterism is present here.
The two most vivid biblical examples of sarcasm are: (1) the taunts of Christ on the cross, that if he is the son of God, that he should come down from the cross and prove it and, (2) the taunts by Elijah of the prophets of Baal in I Kings 18, where he upbraids them mercilessly for not being able to get Baal to ignite the fire of the sacrifice. Maybe Baal has even "turned aside" (is going to the bathroom) and thus does not answer. The sneer of the mycterist is here intensified through the bitter jibe, the amare irrisio, of the sarcast.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long