Those of us whose professional tools are limited to words delight in discovering a
new one, as I did the other day – and after the year we’ve all been through this one
couldn’t have surfaced at a more opportune time.
So allow me to introduce “paraprosdokian,” which, when I stumbled across it
doing some column research, was Greek to me.
In fact, it’s Greek to everyone, since it’s derived from that language’s term for
Once I sighted it, I chased it, and in doing so learned it represents something that
provides us laughter – and who doesn’t need more of that?
So, what’s a paraprosdokian? A sentence that pushes us in one direction and
then unexpectedly yanks us in another. To put it in more familiar English,
paraprosdokians are one-liners.
Like potato chips, these salty and sometimes irreverent morsels cannot be
consumed just one at a sitting.
How can you contemplate the classic example, Henny Youngman’s “Take my
wife – please!” without craving another, perhaps Phyllis Diller’s balancing viewpoint, “My
husband hates to see trash and garbage lying around the house – he can’t stand the
Then there’s Rodney Dangerfield’s, “I was so ugly when I was born, the doctor slapped
And tightwad Jack Benny’s response to a robber demanding his money or his
life: “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.”
Or Groucho Marx’s, “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.”
There’s a difference of opinion on whether “paraprosdokian” (accent on the “dok,”
by the way) is a real word. Its defenders offer citations going back to 1896, and that’s
convincing – but different from the view of one Canadian writer who insists it “was made
up by some semiliterate doofus late in the 20th Century.”
Such academic skirmishes aside, one can’t deny that paraprosdokians are
unpretentious mainstays of our culture, from comedy to politics.
I can certainly relate to this one by Robert Benchley, who said freelance writers
are paid “per piece or per word or perhaps.”
Dorothy Parker said this about a contemporary she disdained: “He’s a writer for
the ages – ages four to eight.”
Zsa Zsa Gabor, who was married nine times, liked to say about one of her exes,
“He taught me housekeeping – when I divorce I keep the house.”
Mark Twain chipped in with, “A clear conscience is surely a sign of a bad
One-liners offer us much-needed laughs, but as well, there’s plenty of wisdom to
be gleaned from some that are more than just knee-slappers.
Will Rogers, for instance, said a mouthful – speaking of discreetly holding one’s
tongue – when he observed, “Letting the cat out of the bag is a whole lot easier than
putting it back in.”
English writer and philosopher G.K. Chesterton packed a lot into his observation
that “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage
makes you a car.”
Winston Churchill gave us an amiable (and at times, not inaccurate) zing with
“You can count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”
And – coincidentally applicable to endings – it’s hard to ignore Albert Einstein’s
frightful paraprosdokian warning: “I know not with what weapons World War 3 will be
fought, but World War 4 will be fought with sticks and stones.”
Gerry Goldstein (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired Providence Journal editor and