Monday, September 30, 2013

"You can't be half zeugma"

One of the joys of parenthood is not just that each of my three kids has a different set of interests, but that I can share with enthusiasm each of those three different sets of interests. For my daughter that set consists of poetry, literature, movies, and religion.

Recently my daughter told me "You can't be half-zeugma", a comment so seemingly enigmatic as to require explanation. It started with a line from a Jeff Foxworthy show, in which he said that he did a show at casino in Mississippi which was "the only place in America where you can shoot craps and doves within ten feet of each other."

I said this was an example of zeugma, which is where where a single word is used with two other parts of a sentence but must be understood differently in relation to each. I first learned of zeugma years ago in one of Will Shortz's Sunday Morning puzzle segments on NPR's "Weekend Edition". Will used the example that his uncle went fishing and caught "five bass and a cold".

This brought to my daughter's mind a line she wrote in one of her stories, where a character was "wearing long, black gloves and a concerned expression." I opined that this was only "half-zeugma", my idea being that the verb "wearing" was used in somewhat the same sense for each object. This triggered my daughter's comment that "you can't be half zeugma".

The idea that something is one or the other, and cannot be some of each, is quite common in English in what are called "absolute adjectives". For example, something is either unique or not, it can't be a little unique, or very unique. One is either pregnant or not, you can't be a little of each.

This brought to my daughter's mind an exchange with a friend of hers, who had said he was "a little sorry". She told him, "Being a little sorry is like being mostly dead. You just can't do it."

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