In Brief

Figure of speech. In one of his many puerile verbal hijinks in Aeolus Lenehan refers to the death of Moses with a long and absurdly hyphenated string of words: "A sudden–at–the–moment–though–from–lingering–illness–often–previously–expectorated–demise." He is practicing what the rhetoricians called periphrasis, a type of circumlocution. Additionally, in the word "expectorated" he is committing catachresis.

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Periphrasis (puh-RIF-ruh-sis, from Greek peri- = around + phrasein = to declare) can have different meanings in rhetorical (and linguistic) theory, but it principally denotes a roundabout way of saying something––using many words where one or a few would suffice. The elaboration may be as brief as saying "I am going to do it" rather than "I will do it" or as long as Micawber's offer to give directions in David Copperfield: "‘Under the impression,’ said Mr. Micawber, ‘that your peregrinations in this metropolis have not as yet been extensive, and that you might have some difficulty in penetrating the arcana of the Modern Babylon in the direction of the City Road—in short,’ said Mr. Micawber, in another burst of confidence, ‘that you might lose yourself—I shall be happy to call this evening, and install you in the knowledge of the nearest way.'”

In sonnet 74 Shakespeare imagines death as an officer of the law: "when that fell arrest / Without all bail shall carry me away." The metaphorical personification is not necessary, but it lends force to the imagination of death's sudden, imperious, and irresistible arrival on the scene. Lenehan does something sillier. Moses' death, he suggests, must have seemed sudden at the moment, but the man was old and infirm, so surely he suspected that it might be coming. None of this needs saying or adds much to one's understanding that Moses died at an advanced age.

The unnecessary elongation in this phrase extends even to changing the word "expected" to "expectorated." Gilbert and Seidman call the change paragogue––altering the spelling of a word by adding a letter or syllable––but this does not really seem like variant orthograpy. Rather, Lenehan appears to be childishly playing with the sounds of words, as in the quasi-metathesis he works with "Clamn dever." By inserting "orat," he produces an entirely new word. "Expect" comes from the Latin root spectare = to look at. "Expectorate" (from Latin pectus = breast) means to eject from the chest––i.e., to spit. Lenehan's choice of the wrong word, no matter whether ignorant or deliberate, means that this passage should instead be described as catachresis.

JH 2023
Quotation from Edward Abbey's A Voice Crying in the Wilderness (Vox Clamantis in Deserto). Source: