Wednesday, October 12, 2011

This Post Is Not about Praetoritio

I never thought I would say this — ever: I learned a new word as a result of the debate by the Republican presidential candidates.

Last night, Dartmouth College hosted an economic debate among the Republican presidential candidates. Without getting into the politics, my favorite part of the debate was when the candidates got to ask each other questions. Jon Huntsman prefaced his question to Mitt Romney this way:
Since this discussion is all about economics, Governor Romney, I promise this won't be about religion.*
Governor Mitt Romney of MAMitt Romney, Mormon
Image via Wikipedia
See what he did there? He reminded viewers of Mitt Romney's religion by saying that he, Huntsman, wasn't going to talk about religion. (At least that's what I thought at the time, but I was wrong. Keep reading.)

After I tweeted about that, @CopyCurmudgeon pointed out that this type of rhetorical device is called praetoritio, a word I don't recall ever having heard or seen before, though I'm fairly familiar with the concept. So I did some digging to learn more.

Praeteritio is a rhetorical device in which the speaker invokes a subject by saying that it shouldn't or won't be invoked. It's often used as a subversive ad hominem attack, and it also goes by the names apophasis and paralipsis, though I'm uncertain whether or not there are subtle differences among these three concepts. (Frankly, it's a little confusing, and I'm hoping some of my readers might be able to shed more light on the subject.)

Huntsman's praeteritio is obvious here (or so I thought): By telling Romney that he is not going to bring up religion, he is in fact bringing up religion. Had he asked Michelle Bachmann a question instead, his praeteritio might have looked like this:
Since this is a discussion about economics, Congresswoman Bachmann, I promise this won't be about you having a vagina.
Of course, we don't need Huntsman to remind us that Michelle Bachmann is a woman; she does that well enough on her own. But the fact that Romney's a Mormon isn't so obvious.

By now, the more politically aware of you are saying, "But Logophilius, Jon Huntsman is a Mormon, too! He used to be the Governor of Utah!" That's a fact I didn't learn until after the debate was over. (Following the GOP candidates too closely could be detrimental to my health, so I try to avoid it.)

Official photo of United States Ambassador to ...Jon Huntsman, Jr., also a Mormon
Image via Wikipedia
Huntsman's preface, as it turns out, was actually a small joke and a subtle (perhaps too subtle?) dig at Texas Governor Rick Perry. Immediately after raising/not raising the subject of religion, Huntsman turned to Perry and said, "Sorry about that, Rick."

So what's this really about? Well, recently, one of Rick Perry's supporters — a pastor — called the Church of Latter-day Saints a cult. Romney asked Perry to repudiate those statements; Perry so far has neither repudiated nor refudiated those statements.

Since then, to Romney's chagrin, reporters have been asking him a lot of questions about religion. He's said that he is not going to answer questions about religion in short bursts and sound bites — with dozens of people tossing questions at him as he walks from here to there. Religion in this country is not a simple situation, and Romney has (rightfully, I think) refused to answer questions about religion until he is in a situation in which he can answer at length.

So it was a praeteritio in the sense that Huntsman was bringing up the subject religion by saying that he wasn't going to bring up the subject of religion, but the statement was more light-hearted than I originally thought and aimed at not just Romney but Perry.

Whether Huntsman's praetoritio, apophasis, or paralipsis — whichever you want to call it — served to remind the audience of Perry's apparent religious intolerance or to remind them of Romney's non-Protestant religious views remains to be seen. Huntsman's statement might have backfired (surely I wasn't the only one who was a little confused).

He wouldn't have been the only candidate to stick his foot in his mouth last night. More than one candidate tasted his or her own toes because of some ill-thought phrases. Rick Santorum, for example, actually said, "I want to go to war with China."

Yeah. That'll come back to haunt him.

[Update 10/13/11: You can find James Harbeck's nice write-up of paralipsis over at Sesquiotica. He prefers paralipsis to praetoritio, and I admit there's a certain appeal to the name of a rhetorical device that has a pair-o'-lips right there in the word. But there's something about that ae combination that always grabs my attention. Maybe it's that ae is relatively rare in American English — one of the letters usually gets dropped — or that words with ae feel like they're closer to their roots, like I'm sharing a moment with ancient Roman scholars.

Or maybe it's that praetoritio makes me think of "praying for Doritos." After all, too much praetoritio can make a guy hungry.]

*I'm using the transcript of the debate from

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