rhetoric. “Rhetoric” = (1) the art of using language persuasively; the rules that help one achieve eloquence; (2) the persuasive use of language; (3) a treatise on persuasive language; and (4) prose composition as a school subject. These are the main senses outlined in the OED, which also records “ironical or jocular” uses from the late 16th century to the mid-19th century (such as this from 1742: “The rhetoric of John the hostler, with a new straw hat, and a pint of wine, made a second conquest over her”). There should probably be added a new sense, related to but distinct from the first sense: (5) “the bombastic or disingenuous use of language to manipulate people.” Older books defined “rhetoric” in line with sense 1: “Rhetoric is the Art of speaking suitably upon any Subject.” John Kirkby, A New English Grammar 141 (1746). But the slippage toward the pejorative sense 5 began early. William Penn suggested its iniquitous uses in the 17th century: “There is a Truth and Beauty in Rhetorick; but it oftener serves ill Turns than good ones.” William Penn, “Some Fruits of Solitude” (1693), in 1 Harvard Classics 329, 352 (Charles W. Eliot ed., 1909). By the 20th century, some writers with a classical bent were trying hard to reclaim the word — e.g.: “No one who reads [ancient authors] can hold the puerile notions of rhetoric that prevail in our generation. The ancients would have made short work of the cult of the anti-social that lies behind the cult of mystification and the modern hatred of rhetoric. All the great literary ages have exalted the study of rhetoric.” Van Wyck Brooks, Opinions of Oliver Allston 291 (1941). But T.S. Eliot probably had it right when he acknowledged that the word is essentially ambiguous today — generally pejorative but with flashes of a favorable sense: “The word [rhetoric] simply cannot be used as synonymous with bad writing. The meanings which it has been obliged to shoulder have been mostly opprobrious; but if a precise meaning can be found for it this meaning may occasionally represent a virtue.” Eliot, “‘Rhetoric’ and Poetic Drama,” in The Sacred Wood 78, 79 (7th ed. 1950). For a good, well-rounded reference book on rhetoric, see The Encyclopedia of Rhetoric (Thomas O. Sloane ed., 2001). For information about the Language-Change Index, click here. ——————– Quotation of the Day: “Writing a book is a full-time occupation. You are thinking about it all the time.” Jay Parini, “On Being Prolific,” in Writers on Writing 199, 199 (Robert Pack & Jay Parini eds., 1991).
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