apophasis /ə-PAW-fə-sis/noun. A rhetorical device in which one asserts something by saying they won’t bring it up. Apophasis can often be identified by phrases such as, “not to mention.”
Today’s conversations got me thinking about political dialogue and persuasion, and I emerged from the rabbit hole of rhetoric with the word apophasis. Apophasis is a device in which someone says something by saying they won’t be saying it. It’s an unfamiliar term for a familiar move…think of the many times you’ve heard someone say, “not to mention” and then mention that very thing.
One of the best definitions is also one of the earliest. In 1657 John Smith defined apophasis as, “a kind of irony, whereby we deny that we say or do that which we especially say or do.”
The word comes to us from the Greek apophanai (to deny); from apo- (off, away from) + phanai (to say). And if you really time travel, this comes from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root bhā- (to say, speak, tell), from which we get many fabulous words including, well, fabulous, not to mention fandango, nefarious and phonics.
Perhaps the most famous literary use of apophasis comes from William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, soon after Marc Antony’s famous “lend me your ears” monologue, when he goes on to speak of Caesar’s will (despite all the wordplay, Antony is speaking of the legal document):
“Have patience, gentle friends. I must not read it.
It is not meet you know how Caesar loved you.
You are not wood, you are not stones, but men:
And being men, hearing the will of Caesar,
It will inflame you, it will make you mad.
’Tis good you know not that you are his heirs,
For if you should, O what would come of it?
(Mark Antony speaking in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caeasar)
And Chaucer was a fan as well:
“You may expect me to comment on the music, and the service, at the feast – on the gifts that were given to high and low – on the rich furnishings of Theseus’ palace – or on the order of guests on the dais – or on the ladies who were fairest or most expert at dancing – or who sang best – or who sang most passionately of love – but I am afraid you will be disappointed. You will not hear from me about the tame hawks that strutted on their perches, or about the mastiffs lying upon the floor of the hall.” (Chaucer, “The Knight’s Tale,” found in The Canterbury Tales: A Retelling by Peter Ackroyd)
Somewhat more contemporaneously, you can find apophasis used by some of the greatest novelists in the English language:
“The doctrine which I imagine she stuffs into the pretty heads of your girl-guests is almost vengeful. A sort of moral fire-and-sword doctrine. How far the lesson is wise is not for me to say.” (Joseph Conrad, Chance)
“We will not speak of all Queequeg’s peculiarities here; how he eschewed coffee and hot rolls, and applied his undivided attention to beefsteaks, done rare.” (Herman Melville, Moby Dick)
Or, perhaps you heard this dramatic, cinematic example in theaters recently:
“I’m not saying I’m responsible for this country’s longest run of uninterrupted peace in 35 years! I’m not saying that from the ashes of captivity, never has a phoenix metaphor been more personified! I’m not saying Uncle Sam can kick back on a lawn chair, sipping on an iced tea, because I haven’t come across anyone man enough to go toe to toe with me on my best day! It’s not about me.” (Robert Downey, Jr., as Tony Stark in Iron Man 2)
Apophasis is particularly popular in political speech for the veneer of plausible deniability it provides.
Abraham Lincoln, one of our best presidential orators, was particularly fond of it:
“I will not say that he wilfully misquotes, but he does fail to quote accurately.” (Abraham Lincoln, 1858 speech in Springfield, Illinois)
“I leave it to you to say whether, in the history of our government, this institution of slavery has not always failed to be a bond of union, and, on the contrary, been an apple of discord and an element of division in the house.” (Abraham Lincoln, 1858 debate with Stephen Douglas)
The political trend today seems to be apophasis of a much more direct sort, with few—if any—speakers employing the tactic more often than President Donald Trump:
“I will not call him [Marco Rubio] a lightweight, because I think that’s a derogatory term […] I refuse to say that he’s a lightweight.” (Fort Dodge, Iowa, November 12, 2015)
“So I promised that I wouldn’t say, so I said it to myself, I promised I wouldn’t say that she [Carla Fiorina] ran Hewlett-Packard into the ground. I said I will not say it – that her stock value tanked. That she laid off tens of thousands of people and she got viciously fired. […] I said I will not say it.” (Hampton, New Hampshire, August 14, 2015)
Incidentally, and so far on the other end of the rhetorical spectrum it may induce whiplash, there’s a long tradition of apophasis in philosophy and religion, one stream of which is known more popularly as negative theology, the idea that God can only be described by negation.
In an On Being interview, Christian Wiman put it in appropriately poetic terms:
“It’s why I’m drawn to mystics like Meister Eckhart and more contemporary ones like Simone Weil and the language of apophasis, where you state something, but the statement sort of unstates itself. Meister Eckhart said, “We pray to God to be free of God.” We ask God to be free of God.” (Christian Wiman, On Being interview)
In other words, the idea is that God is ineffable…and guess what, ineffable comes from the same PIE root bha- I mentioned earlier.
See also: paralipsis, praeteritio and cataphasis.