Printable Version
Pronunciation: ê-pah-fê-sis Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun, mass (no plural)

Meaning: 1. The sneaky rhetorical device of alluding to something by denying that it will be mentioned, as in "Let's not talk about George's 40th birthday tonight, OK?" 2. The process of elimination, defining something by eliminating all that it isn't.

Notes: The adjective to today's Good Word is used mostly in the older sense (Number 2 above). Apophatic reasoning is defining something by eliminating what it is not. The guessing game beginning with "Is it bigger than a breadbox" is an example of apophatic reasoning. Apophatic theology begins with the assumption that God is unknowable; we can only eliminate the things that he is not. What is left, presumably, defines God.

In Play: Not only does apophasis break a promise, it actually brings the topic not to be mentioned into focus: "OK, you guys, let's not bring up Henry's raise or he will insist on picking up the tab." English has an apophatic cliché, 'not to mention . . .', that goes something like this: "Portia Carr has everything: good looks, intelligence—not to mention scads of money." Here Portia's money is not only mentioned despite the promise not to, it becomes the focus of the list.

Word History: English borrowed today's Good Word from late Latin, which took it from Greek apophasis, the noun from apophanai "to say no". The Greek word is made up of apo "(away) from" + phanai "to say". The same root appears in several English words referring to speech, such as aphasia "speech loss" and telephone, the "distant talker". In Latin the same Proto-Indo-European word became fari "to speak", a verb that went into the making of the words that English borrowed as fable and fabulous (from fable). Infant was borrowed from Latin infans, infantis "not speaking". Infantry? Well, that is what the French long ago called foot soldiers, the babies.

Dr. Goodword,

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