Printable Version
Pronunciation: ret-ê-rik Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun, mass (no plural)

Meaning: 1. The art of oratory, of elegant, effective, persuasive public speaking. 2. Empty speech, words without meaning, clever but insincere speech.

Notes: I like to reexamine words that have received a bad rap resulting from misusage. Today's word is a perfect example. Originally it referred to creative, artistic speech and the study thereof. In recent years, it has been associated with empty, as in empty rhetoric, to refer to deceptive speech. It is a shame. This noun has an adjective, rhetorical. A person who knows rhetoric in the original sense is a rhetorician.

In Play: Many fear the loss of striking rhetoric with the rise of e-mail, social networking, and smart phone messaging. Hopefully, some of us will hold out: "Miriam Webster's rhetoric waxes remarkably elegant when she speaks on subjects dear to her heart, like cruises and cuisine." We all agree that President Obama is a gifted master of rhetoric. Our political prejudice will determine whether we understand rhetoric here in the first or second sense.

Word History: The spelling of the [r] sound as RH in this word gives away its origin in ancient Greek, the Greek adjective rhetorike "rhetorical", shortened from the phrase rhetorike tekhne "rhetorical art". The adjective came from rhetor "speech teacher". The root of rhetor developed from an earlier Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word, which was something like wor-dho- "word", and, yes, it is also the origin of English word. The PIE word became wurdam in Old Germanic and also turns up as Wort in Modern German, woord in Dutch, and ord in the Scandinavian languages. In Latin it became verbum "word", which English borrowed, via French, as verb. The adjective from verbum, verbalis "wordy", was inherited by French and borrowed thence by English as verbal. (We will avoid either type of rhetoric in thanking Daniel E. Parks, basking now in the sun of St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, for suggesting today's Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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