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Paraprosdokian Creativity

By Peter Lloyd

Some people hear voices. Some see invisible people. Others have no imagination whatsoever. This not-so-subtle juxtaposition of imagination and hallucination, invites me to show off another big word you don’t hear too often—paraprosdokian. If I understood the word correctly, I’d be surprised.

The new word has been jury-rigged from the Greek para, meaning despite or beyond, and prosdokia, meaning expectation. A paraprosdokian, then, is a verbal sleight of hand that works despite your expectations or like magic. The magician leads your mind’s eye in one direction and presents something unexpected from another, often to your sheer delight. The verbal magician does the same, most efficiently with the one-liner.

colored printIts king, Henny “Take my wife” Youngman, would come on stage with a violin and play his audience with a string of paraprosdokians.

Sometimes a simple pun makes paraprosdokian misdirection possible, as in “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana,” a triple-pun paraprosdokian from Groucho Marx. But more often the one-liner begins with one meaning of a word and concludes with another: I just flew in from Miami. Boy, my arms are tired. (Actually my fingers are getting tired of typing paraprosdokian.)

In all cases, you lead your audience in one direction, then plop them down somewhere else. This, I was told by Edward de Bono, represents the essence of creativity. Seriously.
Self-organizing systems set up patterns. Such patterns are usually asymmetric. This means that we normally go along the main track without even noticing the side track. But, if-somehow-we get across to the side track, the route becomes obvious in hindsight. This is the basis of both humor and creativity.
Creative people—artists, musicians, inventors, and innovators—all make use of the paraprosdokian, whether they know it or not. When musicians improvise they surprise their audiences with tonal, rhythmic, and other musical twists or turns of phrase. Groundbreaking compositions take listeners to new places by playing with their expectations.

When inventors go paraprosdokian, they apply the intended use of something to perform an inventive function. Would it be stretching the point to suggest as an example the use of silicon in computer chips? Does it matter? The ability to use anything for an unconventional purpose makes invention possible.

Advertising has depended heavily on the paraprosdokian throughout its history. I think we could call the classic Volkswagen “Think Small” ads the shortest paraprosdokian of all time. A one-word paraprosdokian might be cleave. It means the opposite of itself.

My favorite advertising paraprosdokian would have to be the SAAB headline, “Follow your heart without leaving your mind behind.” Of course, I have to mention, “If it isn’t sharp, it’s dull,” and “What do you want on your Tombstone?” A few of you might remember the classic, “When it rains it pours.” Paraprosdokians all. Or maybe just puns. Who’s counting?

Now I’m rambling. Let me conclude by apologizing. I would have made this Workout shorter, but I ran out of time. The point is, the voices in my head may not be real, but they have some good ideas!

See also:
Peter Lloyd is co-creator with Stephen R. Grossman of Animal Crackers, the breakthrough problem-solving tool designed to crack your toughest problems.

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