Thursday, November 19, 2015


The Shot Not Taken

This one will be short and vague, by necessity.

This week I witnessed a devastatingly effective “shot not taken,” a sort of negative-space insult that worked by implied contrast.  I gasped at its elegance.  It’s a dying art, but it’s not entirely gone yet, and I’ll miss it when it breathes its last.

I’m sure there’s a word for it -- wise and worldly readers, help!! -- but we’ve all seen it.  It’s Mozart saying to Salieri, “only you.”  Or Alan King listing his favorite actors: “Sir Laurence Olivier.  Sir Kenneth Branagh.  And Drew Carey.”  

It’s more impressive in relatively spontaneous contexts.  It can be the silent beat, followed by a conspicuous change of subject, after a stupid comment.  Or the compliment that implies its own shadow, often in the space of a pause: “he’s very...decisive....”  “She certainly has a...presence.”  

It’s not exactly sarcasm; it’s more surgical than that.  Done well, it leaves the attacker looking clean and clever, and leaves the attacked almost nowhere to go.  It’s the verbal equivalent of the perfect knuckleball: off-speed and easy to get wrong, but when done right, almost beautiful in its evasive effectiveness.  

The undisputed master, of course, was P. G. Wodehouse.  Politically, he was somewhere between naive and offensive, but in verbal precision, nobody came close.  “Even at normal times Aunt Dahlia’s map tended a little towards the crushed strawberry.  But never had I seen it take on such a pronounced richness as now. She looked like a tomato struggling for self-expression.”   “He resembled a minor prophet who had been hit behind the ear with a stuffed eel-skin.”  “Unseen, in the background, fate was quietly slipping the lead into the boxing-glove.”

Wodehousian humor demands close attention, which may be why it’s fading.  It requires both precision and subtlety, and it asks of its reader or listener the ability to appreciate each.  It’s easy to miss.

All of which is to say, I tip my cap.  It was so elegant that all I can do is applaud.

Wise and worldly readers, is there a simple term for that?  And do you have a favorite application?

In British English this is called irony, and it is not at all a dying art. Terry Pratchett, Private Eye, Blackadder, built on this sort of thing.
It's a nice bit of rhetoric. You can watch Barack Obama deploy it here:
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“She looked at me like someone who has just solved the crossword puzzle with a shrewd ‘Emu’ in the top right hand corner.”

“I regard her as the sand in Civilization’s spinach.”

"He looked like a statue of Right Triumphing Over Wrong. You couldn't place it exactly because it was so long since you had read the book, but he reminded you of something out of Pilgrim's Progress."

"He blinked, like some knight of King Arthur's court, who, galloping to perform a deed of derring-do, has had the misfortune to collide with a tree."
I had a tragic "Wodehouse phase" in my writing, because after reading a few books of his, I couldn't imagine not writing like him. Why would you do anything else? He's much like Fred Astaire -- his work is beautiful and elegant and looks effortless and is absurdly difficult to create. The structures are easy enough to mimic, but it his mastery of tone, the graceful touch, that requires superhuman skill. If you don't hit every line just so, you come off as a pretentious, tone-deaf simpleton. My "Wodehouse phase" graced the world with excruciatingly bad prose and evidence of my pretentious, tone-deaf simplemindedness.

God, he was amazing.
In the homeland of passive-aggressiveness, Minnesota, there is a way of saying 'that's... Different'. That implies difference in a way that isn't at all acceptable, but will not be explained further.
And, of course we *ALL* want to know what triggered this. But we also know that you probably can't tell us.
In addition to MKS' excellent suggestions, may I offer "Yes, Minister"?
For example:
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