On letting one's guard (and pants) down

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Mark Liberman noted (as did Neal Whitman on his Literal-Minded blog) a case of syllepsis in an Atlantic piece by Conor Friedersdorf: "What conservative Washington Post readers got, when they traded in Dave Weigel for [Jennifer] Rubin, was a lot more hackery and a lot less informed about the presidential election." But Weigel offered up a nice syllepsis of his own on Twitter today:


Using syllepsis to put a wry twist on a headline involving a sexual scandal reminds me of another such example I posted about in 2006 ("A racy WTF coordination"). After a Kentucky schoolteacher got fired when it was revealed that she once appeared in an adult movie, her plea for forgiveness led to this headline on Fark.com: "Teacher who starred in porn movie a decade ago wants forgiveness, it harder, faster, OH GOD YES."

Syllepsis, or the more general rhetorical category of zeugma, requires words (generally verbs) to be pulling syntactic double-duty in an elliptical coordination:

  • "get more hackery and ___ less informed"
  • "let his guard down and ___ (his) pants ___"
  • "want forgiveness and ___ it harder, faster"

When repetition occurs with no ellipsis, as in "She blew my nose and then she blew my mind" from The Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women," then syllepsis and zeugma don't quite apply. Arnold Zwicky suggests using the term zeugmoid in such cases. For more, see my Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus, "In Praise of the Rolling Stones and Their Zeugmoids."

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8 Comments »

  1. DonBoy said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 2:43 pm

    I don't percieve Weigel's tweet as having the same WTF as the other examples. Both "pants" and "guard" are direct objects and are the kind of things than can be let down, although one is metaphorical here. (If one's guard is taken to be a literal shield, it's something that can be physically lowered, although I'm not sure that's the factual etymology.)

  2. Nathan said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 9:48 pm

    I would have thought the idiom came from boxing, but I can't quickly find online evidence.

  3. xana said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 10:01 pm

    It comes from fencing. En garde!

  4. Gary said,

    November 12, 2012 @ 8:21 am

    I thought until I read the comments that the point of David Weigel's play on word was the double meaning of "let his guard down"—-dropped his defense and disappointed his gang of defenders.

  5. richardelguru said,

    November 12, 2012 @ 11:38 am

    "She blew my nose and then she blew my mind"
    Anti-bathos?

  6. Ross Presser said,

    November 12, 2012 @ 3:11 pm

    It took me about two minutes to understand this LL post. My first impression smushed the two examples together:

    "What conservative Washington Post readers got, when they traded in Dave Weigel for [Jennifer] Rubin, was a lot more hackery and a lot less informed about the presidential election …. also, pants."

    As in, the readers got pants as well as hackery. Except that Jennifer Rubin, being female, may wear skirts instead of pants. So that was wrong anyway. Pity my poor confused mind …

  7. Andy Averill said,

    November 12, 2012 @ 3:45 pm

    @richardelguru, I've alway assumed the Stones were hinting at another kind of blowing, but there was a limit to how far even they could go in those days. Don't know what the name for that rhetorical figure would be.

  8. maidhc said,

    November 13, 2012 @ 12:10 am

    I always assumed that "blew my nose" was referring to cocaine.

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