The Rhetoric of Committee Meetings

Blog Post by Neil Seeman Director and Primary Investigator of the Health Strategy Innovation Cell at Massey College at the University of Toronto and Mary V. Seeman Psychiatrist, writer and Professor emerita at the University of Toronto

With a thank you to Richard Nordquist’s “From Accismus to Zeugma: 20 Rhetorical Terms You Never Learned in School,” we have explored many of the most common policy concerns raised nowadays by healthcare providers and analysts throughout Western nations. There often is, we feel, a lack of forthrightness which could be solved through a better appreciation of the subtleties of language. Consider a hypothetical exchange at a board committee in a hospital.

Doctors who say during committee that they are not primarily interested in reimbursement are using accismus, a form of irony in which individuals feign a lack of interest in something very dear to their hearts, hearts being at the very core of health. This last phrase was also an example of anadiplosis, repeating the last word of a clause to begin the next one, which is hard. “Hard for what?” you may ask. That was an example of an unfinished thought, also called aposiopesis. Someone else might say it is not only hard, but in fact vile, loathsome, foul and wicked, illustrating bdelygmia, epithets that come in a series, and if that person adds, “abundantly so” to the tail end of the sentence, he is boosting, using an adverbial phrase to express a claim.
“Yeah, yeah, you guys are not interested in what you get paid,” responds a colleague with chleuasmos, sarcasm intended to ridicule an opponent.

“No fighting in the forum,” shouts the Chair, with dehortatio, dissuasive advice imparted with authority.

“I think it is important to carefully listen to one another and consider each other’s points.” That’s a measured response from a Board member using diatyposis, this being a figure of speech recommending precepts or giving sound advice.

“We need an epexegesis,” a supporter chimes in. What he means is that the statement needs clarification.

“I think it is important to carefully listen to one another and consider each other’s points. I believe we need to be considerate. We have to attend to each other’s perspectives.” The fellow who had used diatyposis is now expanding to epimone, the frequent repetition of the same point. He now bangs his fist furiously on the table and loudly whispers, “listen, listen, listen,” demonstrating epizeuxis, the repetition of a word for emphasis.
The friend who had demanded the epexegesis is now fed up and mockingly yells, “listen, listen, listen,” while banging his head on the table. He is making use of hypocrisis, or exaggerating the gestures and speech habits of another for effect.

“List ten reasons to listen,” comes a voice from the back of the room. A punster is playing with words, using paronomasia.

“We are done for,” someone else interjects. This is prolepsis, a figurative device by which a future event is presumed to have already occurred.

The Chair, visibly shaken, announces: “Brewing has begun but without coffee we are getting headaches in the back of the room.” He is being intentionally obscure so as to confuse the audience because the meeting is getting out of hand. This is called skotison. He was playing….his best hand…and on everyone’s nerves (this is a syllepsis in which a verb is understood differently in relation to two or more objects).

“Vile, loathsome, foul and wicked,” a Board member again cries out, showing that the same words can be both bdelygmia and synathroesmus, the piling up of adjectives, often in the spirit of invective. To make matters worse, he adds, “You’re a son of a gun,” showing tapinosis or name-calling.

The Chair resigns. He says, quoting Churchill, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” thus demonstrating his skill at the tetracolon climax.

“Holy smokes and mirrors,” someone is heard to whisper, finishing the day on a zeugma, the use of one word to modify two or more nouns logically appropriate for only one.

At this juncture the meeting comes to a hurried close, with little to show for it – except, perhaps, for a lesson in rhetoric. This is an accomplishment of sorts.


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