Pardon, my rhetorical device is showing

By Washington Post
Published November 5, 2006

Dear Mr. Weingarten:

I am a student at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring. You are funny. What is your secret? I have analyzed some of your columns for my English class, looking for what we call "rhetorical strategies," but haven't found any.


Allen Zhang

Dear Allen:

You weren't looking hard enough. "Rhetorical strategies" are important tools of famous, respected literary humorists such as myself and Mark Twain, although neither of us had ever heard of the term before looking it up on Google. It turns out we use them all the time! Here are some of our favorites:

1. Sarcasm. This strategy is particularly valuable because you can insult stupid people, and they won't know they are being insulted. You must make sure never to use sarcasm on a smart person like George W. Bush, however, because, given the awesome magnitude of his smartitudinousness, he would figure out what you are doing and get the CIA to pour water up your nose.

2. See what I did there, at the end? That is satire, another rhetorical strategy. Satire happens when you take a true fact George W. Bush is in favor of torture and make fun of it through exaggeration. (He would never actually torture you.) (You are just a high school kid.) (With a suspiciously communist last name.) (But you have nothing to worry about.) (Probably.)

3. As a rhetorical device, poop is funny - always, in any context, using any terminology. Ask yourself this question: Which is funnier, "fetal distress" or "fecal distress"?

4. The previous sentence uses the most classic rhetorical strategy, namely, the rhetorical question. A rhetorical question is a question that isn't really a question. Here is another example: "May I assume you are familiar with the earlier works of Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux, the lamentably unappreciated 18th century minor French poet and critic known for his beguiling wit?" This is not actually a question. It is a statement, namely, "I am a snot, and, as such, it is permissible for you to cram my head in the toilet and flush."

I repeat, poop is always funny.

5. Anything Jewish-sounding is funny. We Jews are famously funny people, so absolutely anything can be made funnier if you throw in some Jew stuff.

Funny line: Take my wife ... please.

Funnier line: "Take my wife. With all her kvetching, she is making me plotz. You could maybe also please take my mother-in-law, who is 5 foot 1 and weighs 250 pounds and dresses in schmattes, so she looks like some sort of haystack made of old tablecloths. So, take both, and I will celebrate with gefilte fish and schnapps."

6. All jokes about human sex parts are funny, except those about parts belonging to women. I know, because every time I write about that subject, and I think it's funny, I receive 342,973 fe-mails explaining why I am wrong. So, Allen, you just don't want to go there. And by "there" I am not trying to be funny.

7. Did you notice I said "fe-mails"? That is a device known as "conflation," in which you combine two words into one for comedic effect. Here is another example: "George W. Bush was elected twice because of overwhelming support from people in rural areas. In other words, he emerged hicktorious."

Another term for this kind of combination-word is "portmanteau," which comes from the French. I'm not sure what it originally meant, but I am guessing it's some form of "I surrender."

8. It is always funny to attack the French. For one thing, they never fight back. But, more important, the French are famously supercilious; they think they are smarter and more civilized than you are. For example, when we invaded Iraq, the French were oh-so-certain this was a terrible, bumbling mistake, so we kept making fun of them for being such insufferable know-it-alls.

9. The final rhetorical strategy is irony. See Item 8.

Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is weingarten@washpost.com.