Definition: A figure of speech in which the latter part of a phrase or sentence or short passage is unexpected or surprising, causing the listener or reader to reframe the earlier part. If you watch television or listen to radio, you have definitely heard them — you just didn’t know that there was a name for them. In elementary school every kid enjoyed this classic: “Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.” A more sophisticated example of a paraprosdokian is the one attributed to British philosopher Bertrand Russell: “War does not determine who is right — only who is left.” Due to the clever juxtaposition of meaning, a sort of verbal double-take, the paraprosdokian is often used for humorous effect; in that regard, it is a cousin to the much maligned pun. In the introduction to What the Tweet? Write Funny One-liners, Paraprosdokians, Quotations and Aphorisms for Twitter, authors Bill Liao and Deirdre Nuttrall expound on paraprosdokians: “[In a paraprosdokian] a sentence or phrase starts out heading one way, and ends in quite another way altogether… It’s as if the beginning saw us driving toward Detroit, and then, somehow, we ended up circling the Arc de Triomphe in Paris… The results are often hilarious, frequently insightful, and almost always fun… With a paraprosdokian you are always threading the needle twice. There always has to be an ‘aha’ moment, which is what makes them so infectious.” Amen. The paraprosdokian is a staple in the acts of the following comedians, several who are masters of the one-liner: Groucho Marx, Henny Youngman, Rodney Dangerfield, Steven Wright, Mitch Hedberg, and Emo Philips.
Related words and phrases: paraprosdokia, pull back and reveal joke
Etymology: Paraprosdokian is a word formed by the Greek preposition para (meaning “contrary to”) and Greek noun prosdokia (meaning “expectation”); hence “contrary to expectation.” As Canada’s leading etymologist Bill Casselman points out, most classical rhetoric terms take the form of a noun in the nominative case, rather than the accusative case; thus the term should be paraprosdokia rather than paraprosdokian. The earliest recording of the word, as two separate words (para prosodokian), appears in the ancient Greek text, De Elocution (“On Style”) attributed to the famous Athenian statesman and orator, Demetrios of Phalerum (350 to 280 BC) but actually written by an unidentified author around 200 AD. The two-word term is defined in A Greek-English Lexicon by Henry Liddell and Robert Scott (Clarendon Press, 1940) as “opposite [of expectation], which is used of a kind of joke frequently in comedy.” The compound term begins showing up in British publications in the 19th century: Punch magazine (1891), and The Cambridge Review (1893). A search of the term in Google Books returns more than 950 results; a search in Google nets more than 43,900 results. Despite the well-established usage of the term in print and online, curiously, as of June 2014, the word does not appear in the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary, and most, if not all, American print-edition dictionaries. The term, however, is defined by a number of online dictionaries. Despite its imperfect construction, paraprosdokian is a legitimate word that contrary to expectation, deserves to be included in official dictionaries (are you reading this, editors of the OED?) and spellcheckers. Like Rodney Dangerfield, the word paraprosdokian “gets no respect.”
Bookshelf presents some of the best paraprosdokians made famous by comedians.
I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it. (Groucho Marx)
We took some pictures of the native girls, but they’re not developed yet. We’re going back next year, when they’re more developed. (Groucho Marx)
I’ve been in love with the same woman for forty-one years. If my wife finds out, she’ll kill me. (Henny Youngman)
Take my wife… Please. (Henny Youngman)
My wife and I were happy for twenty years. Then we met. (Rodney Dangerfield)
I met the surgeon general. He offered me a cigarette. (Rodney Dangerfield)
I love to go down to the schoolyard and watch all the little children jump up and down and run around yelling and screaming. They don’t know I’m only using blanks. (Emo Philips)
I haven’t slept for ten days, because that would be too long. (Mitch Hedberg)
On the other hand, you have different fingers. (Steven Wright)
I installed a skylight in my apartment; the people who live above me are furious (Steven Wright)
For further reading: What the Tweet? Write Funny One-liners, Paraprosdokians, Quotations and Aphorisms for Twitter by Bill Liao and Deirdre Nuttrall, Bookshaker (2013)