The Psychology of Language

Rhetoric may seem abstract and old-fashioned until you realize that all your favorite rhymes and tunes and lines depend on it. Have you ever asked yourself why Obama is so rousing at a rally? It’s because he’s mugged up on his rhetoric, that’s why—especially on epistrophe, which is the basis of his ‘Yes we can’ shtick. A few years back, I wrote a long and rather disorganized Glossary of Rhetorical Devices.

Today I want to rationalize that list, first, to give me a better understanding of the psychology of language, and, second, so that I might have all the power of language at my fingertips—which, looking at where it got Obama, is quite a lot of power. And so I managed to classify what I consider (and what others consider) to be the most effective rhetorical devices into just eight groups: sound repetition, word repetition, idea or structure repetition, unusual structure, language games, opposition and contradiction, circumlocution, and imagery. I’m going to take you through these eight groups and explain how each one works.

1. Sound repetition The repetition of a sound or sounds can produce a pleasing sense of harmony. It can also subtly link or emphasize important words or ideas. There are two major forms of sound repetition: consonance and alliteration. Consonance is the repetition of the same consonant sound, as in, for example,

Rap rejects my tape deck, ejects projectile/ Whether Jew or gentile I rank top percentile (Fugees)

Alliteration is a type of consonance involving the same consonant sound at the beginning of each word or stressed syllable. Sibilance is a form of consonance involving the repetition of sibilant sounds such as /s/ and /sh/. Sibilance is calming and sensual, whereas alliteration on a hard sound produces an entirely different effect.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain… (Edgar Allen Poe)

Resonance, in contrast, refers to richness or variety of sounds in a line or passage.

Created half to rise, and half to fall; Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all; Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d: The glory, jest, and riddle of the world! (Alexander Pope)

2. Word repetition Word repetition can create alliteration, rhythm or continuity, emphasis, connection, progression, and circularity. Words can be repeated in several ways. Most obviously, a word can be repeated in immediate succession (epizeuxis), as in, for example,

O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon…

Or it can be repeated after one or two intervening words (diacope) or at the beginning and end of a clause or line (epanalepsis).

Bond, James Bond. The king is dead, long live the king! Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou my Romeo?

Or it can be carried across from one clause or line to the next, with the word that ends one clause or line beginning the next (anadiplosis). This brings out key ideas and their connection, lending the proposition something like the strength and inevitability of hard logic.

We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us. (Romans 5:3)

A word can also be repeated, but with a change of meaning, either a subtle, ambiguous change (ploce) or a more obvious grammatical change (polyptoton). Ploce emphasizes a contrast by playing on ambiguity, while polyptoton suggests both a connection and a difference. In the following sentence, ‘Love is not love’ is an example of ploce, while ‘alter’ and ‘alteration’ and ‘remover’ and ‘remove’ are examples of polyptoton.

Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, Or bends with the remover to remove. (Shakespeare)

As well as single words, groups of words can be repeated, either at the beginning of successive clauses or lines (anaphora), or at the end of successive clauses or lines (epiphora).

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways Of my own mind… (Francis Thompson) There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. (Lyndon B. Johnson)

If you really want to be flare, you can combine anaphora and epiphora (symploce).

When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it. (Bill Clinton)

In this particular example, the repetition conveys determination, resolve, and togetherness.

3. Idea or structure repetition The repetition of an idea or structure can, if used correctly, add richness and resonance to expression. It can also add emphasis; create order, rhythm, and progression; and conjure up a total concept. Let’s start with tautology, which is the repetition of the same idea in a line.

With malice toward none, with charity for all.

Pleonasm is a type of tautology involving the use of more words than is necessary for clear expression.

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.

The latter example is a combination of pleonasm and parallelism. Parallelism involves using a similar syntactical structure in a pair or series of related words, clauses, or lines. Three parallel words, clauses, or lines is a tricolon, which is a particularly effective type of isocolon.

Blood, sweat, and tears. Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.

An effective method of emphasizing structural parallels is through a structural reversal (chiasmus).

By the day the frolic, and the dance by night. But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first. Do not give what is holy unto dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they (the pigs) trample them under their feet, and (the dogs) turn and tear you to pieces.

4. Unusual structure An unusual structure draws attention and can also create a shift in emphasis. Hyperbaton is the alteration of the normal order of the words in a sentence, or the separation of words that normally go together. There are several types. Anastrophe involves inversion of ordinary word order. Hypallage involves transference of attributes from their proper subjects to others. Hysteron proteron involves inversion of natural chronology.

Above the seas to stand… (anastrophe) Angry crowns of kings… (hypallage) Let us die, and charge into the thick of the fight. (hysteron proteron)

Zeugma is the joining of two or more parts of a sentence with a single verb (or sometimes a noun). Depending upon the position of the verb (at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end), a zeugma is either a prozeugma, mesozeugma, or hypozeugma. Here is an example of a mesozeugma.

What a shame is this, that neither hope of reward, nor feare of reproach could any thing move him, neither the persuasion of his friends, nor the love of his country. (Henry Peacham)

Syllepsis is a type of zeugma in which a single word agrees grammatically with two or more other words, but semantically with only one.

She lowered her standards by raising her glass, her courage, her eyes, and his hopes. (Flanders and Swann)

A hypozeuxis is the reverse of a zeugma, in which each subject is attached to its own verb. The following is also an example of anaphora (see above).

We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields, and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender! (Sir Winston Churchill)

A periodic sentence is one that is not grammatically or semantically complete before the final clause or phrase.

Every breath you take, every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take, I’ll be watching you.

5. Language games Language games such as puns and deliberate mistakes can draw attention to a phrase or idea, or simply raise a smile, by creating new and often ridiculous images and associations. They can also give rise to a vivid image, create ambiguity, and suggest sincerity and even passion. A pun (or paronomasia) is the use of words with similar sounds, or the use of a word with different senses.

Do hotel managers get board with their jobs? A dog gave birth to puppies near the road and was cited for littering. She is nice from far, but far from nice.

Catachresis is the intentional misuse of a term, applying it to a thing that it does not usually denote. Similarly, synaesthesia is the attribution to a thing of a sensory quality in a modality that is not proper to it.

To take arms against a sea of troubles… ‘Tis deepest winter in Lord Timon’s purse She smelled the way the Taj Mahal smells by moonlight.

Antitimeria is the intentional misuse of a word as if it were a member of a different word class, typically a noun for a verb.

I’ll unhair thy head.

Enallage is the intentional and effective use of incorrect grammar.

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for thy love is better than wine. Love me tender, love me true.

6. Opposition and contradiction Opposition and contradiction draws attention to itself, forces thought, can be humorous, and can suggest progression and completion. An oxymoron is a juxtaposition of words which at first sight seem to be contradictory or incongruous. A paradox is similar to an oxymoron, but less compact.

Make haste slowly. What a pity that youth must be wasted on the young.

Antiphrasis is the use of a word in a context where it means its opposite.

A giant of five foot three inches.

Antithesis is the use of a pair of opposites for contrasting effect. A series of antitheses is called a progression.

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal…

7. Periphrasis or circumlocution Circumlocution essentially works by painting a picture, or conjuring up a complex idea, with just a few well-chosen words. Hendiadys is the combination of two words, and hendiatris of three.

Dieu et mon droit Sound and fury Sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll Lock, stock, and barrel

The latter example is also a merism, which is enumerating the parts to signify the whole. Here’s another example.

For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.

8. Imagery Obviously, imagery works by conjuring up a particular image. Metonymy is the naming of a thing or concept by a thing that is closely associated with it.

Downing Street Westminster The White House The pen is mightier than the sword.

Antonomasia, a type of metonymy, is the use of a word or phrase or epithet in place of a proper name.

The Divine Teacher (Plato) The Master of Those Who Know (Aristotle)

Synedoche, which is similar to metonymy, is the naming of a thing or concept by one of its parts.

A pair of hands Longshanks

And so that’s it: the principal elements of rhetoric arranged in just eight groups. Easy to learn, easy to understand, easy to remember, and easy to teach. Happy writing!

The Psychology of Lateness


The advent of the railways in the 19th century obliged towns in England to align themselves with London Time, or Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Some towns held out for longer than others. One town that stood its ground was Oxford, and for some time, the great clock on Tom Tower at Christ Church featured two minute hands. Still today, if one is about five minutes late in Oxford, one can claim to be running on ‘Oxford time’; and Great Tom, the loudest bell in the city, rings out 101 times every night at five past nine.

Of course, no one bears a grudge if you are just five minutes late, which is why the ‘Oxford time’ excuse is a bit of a joke. To be five minutes late is not really to be late.

Late is when people start getting annoyed. They get annoyed because your lateness betrays a lack of respect and consideration for them—and so they get more annoyed, and more quickly, if they are (or think they are) your social superiors. Unless you present a very good excuse for being late, preferably something that is out of your control (e.g. an elephant on the motorway), being late sends out the message, “My time is more valuable than yours”, that is, “I am more important than you”, and perhaps even, “I am doing you a favour by turning up at all”. It is particularly rude to be late to a formal or important occasion such as a wedding or funeral, or one involving many parts and precise timings such as an elaborate dinner party or civic event.

Being late insults others, but it also undermines the person who is late, because it may betray a lack of intelligence, self-knowledge, will power, or empathy. For instance, it may be that the person who is late has set unrealistic goals and overscheduled his day, or underestimated the time that it takes to travel from one place to another.

But there are also some more perfidious reasons for being late than mere mediocrity. Some involve anger and aggression, and others self-deception. Let’s talk about anger and aggression first.

Angry people who behave with almost exaggerated calm and courtesy might nevertheless express their anger through passive means, that is, through (conscious or unconscious) resistance to meeting the reasonable expectations of others. Examples of passive-aggressive behaviour include creating doubt and confusion; forgetting or omitting significant facts or items; withdrawing usual behaviors such as making a cup of tea, cooking, cleaning, or having sex; shifting responsibility for blame; and, of course, being late—often on a frequent and unpredictable basis.

As the name suggests, passive-aggressive behaviour is a means of expressing aggression covertly, and so without incurring the full emotional and social costs of more overt aggression. It does, however, prevent the underlying issue or issues from being identified and resolved, and can lead to a great deal of upset and resentment in the person or people on its receiving end.

Now let’s talk about the second perfidy, self-deception. As we have seen, being late, especially egregiously or repeatedly late, sends out the message, “I am more important than you”. Of course, one can, and often does, send out a message without it being true—indeed, precisely because it isn’t true. Thus, a person may be late because he feels inferior or unimportant, and being late is a way for him to impose himself on a situation, attract maximal attention, and even take control of proceedings. You may perhaps have noticed that some people in the habit of being late are also in the habit of making a scene out of it: apologising profusely, introducing themselves to everyone in turn, moving furniture around, asking for a clean glass, and so on. Needless to say, such behavior far from excludes an element of passive-aggression.

Staying with self-deception, being late could also be a form of resistance, a way of showing one’s disapproval for the purpose of the meeting, or resentment for it’s probable outcome. In the course of psychotherapy, an analysand is likely to display analogous resistance in the form not only of being late, but also of changing the topic, blanking out, falling asleep, or entirely missing appointments. In the context of psychotherapy, such behaviors suggest that the analysand is close to recalling repressed material but fearful of the consequences.

I ought to point out that being late is not necessarily unhealthy or pathological. Sometimes, being late is your unconscious (intuition) telling you that that you don’t actually want to be there, or that it would be better for you not to be there—for instance, it could be that a meeting (or even a job) is not the best use of your time, or will inevitably work against your own best interests. Note that headaches can serve a similar function—they certainly do for me.

Whenever you are late, you can learn a great deal simply by asking yourself, “Why exactly am I late?” Even if it is ‘only’ because you are too busy, why are you too busy? Often, we keep ourselves as busy as possible so as not to be left alone with our deepest thoughts and feelings, which is, of course, highly counterproductive in the short, medium, and long term. And this is another reason for being late: to avoid being left with no one and nothing but ourselves (thank God for smartphones!).

Finally, I have a little confession to make. In many social situations, I am often exactly eight minutes late. Why? Well, it goes without saying that being early is just as rude, if not more so, than being late, while being exactly on time can sometimes catch out your host (I myself am often caught out by people who are bang on time, which I guess is a form of me being late). On the other hand, being eight minutes late is not perceived as being late, and gives your host just enough time to sit down for a couple of minutes, gather his or her thoughts, and begin to look forward to your arrival.

Wine Blind Tasting Guide Part 1: Why Blind Taste Wine?

The Oxford Wine Blog

James Flewellen, my co-author on The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting, has kindly invited me to write a series of blog posts on wine blind tasting.

As you may be aware, James and I are keen to promote blind tasting, and to encourage and support those who are taking their first steps into the sometimes intimidating and obscurantist world of wine.

James and I met at the University of Oxford, which, for historical reasons, has a very strong culture of wine—no doubt one of a small handful of institutions with a dedicated blind tasting coach!

Simply turning up to almost daily tastings enabled to acquire, as if by osmosis, the knowledge and skills which are required to blind taste, and which we now wish to pass on to others—one of the major motivators for writing our book.

But first, you might be asking yourself, why bother at…

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