Adventures in Rhetoric: Adianoeta

alex atkins bookshelf wordsEver used an adianoeta in your writing or speech? The adianoeta is a wonderfully witty rhetorical device. A hint to its meaning is found in its etymology. The word is derived from the Ancient Greek adianoetos, meaning “unintelligible” or “not understanding.” Thus, an adianoeta is an expression that has two meanings, one obvious (often complimentary), and one that is subtle (the exact opposite of the first meaning). Or expressed another way, the adianoeta has two meanings: one that is literal and another that is ironic. Consider it a literary variation of that amazingly annoying puzzle that went viral in 2018: do you hear “yanny” or “laurel”? (And the follow-up question: does anyone really give a shit?) Unlike that useless puzzle, an adianoeta packs a real punch which explains why it is most often used in paying someone a clever back-handed compliment. Incidentally, the word adianoeta is pronounced: ay DEE ah no eta. Let’s take a look at some classic examples of an adionoeta:

You’ll be lucky if you can get this person to work for you.

Brilliant! Initially, the sentence sounds like a compliment, meaning: you would be fortunate to have this wonderful person working for you. Hire this person! However, if you ponder it for a moment, you realize it also carries a devious secondary meaning, as an insult, meaning: you would be lucky if you can get this lazy person to do any work. Don’t hire this person!

Another classic adianoeta occurred during a famous exchange between Clare Booth Brokaw, a writer and politician, and Dorothy Parker, a writer and satirist. Sometime in the 1920s, while holding a door open for Parker, Luce said:

Age before beauty.

The initial meaning of this is that older, wiser people should be given precedence over younger, less experienced people. But at the same time, the phrase means, let the older and uglier person go ahead of the beautiful person. Parker, who was known for her caustic wit, immediately understood the second meaning, and without missing a beat, replied, “Pearls before swine.” Touché!

A related term is a double entendre (from the French double, meaning “double,” and entendre, meaning “to hear” or “to understand). Both the adianoeta and double entendre have, ahem, double meaning. However in a double entendre, the secondary meaning is generally conveyed by puns and is sexual as opposed to being ironic.

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