Gnomicon 220

If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.

Gnomicon  220
Tuesday 18 December 2012
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His ignorance is encyclopedic.
Abba Eban (2 Feb 1915 – 17 Nov 2002)

It’s unclear from his quote whom this elegant and eloquently articulate Israeli diplomat had in mind, but one can readily imagine a name or two.  As his country’s foreign minister in the period 1966 to 1974, he was, in my recollection, prominently and ubiquitously on the television news of the day in connection with the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt (and its Arab allies) – about this conflict he famously noted that “I think that this is the first war in history that on the morrow the victors sued for peace and the vanquished called for unconditional surrender.”

Here it is the sentiment and its expression I wish to address rather than anything substantive about that military operation and its antecedents or its troubled aftermath.  From the rhetorical point of view, I would call Eban’s comment a fine example of the rhetorical trope known as a paraprosdokian  (or para prosdokian) — as well as an oxymoron.  Both imply a certain ironic contradiction.

Thus, ‘ignorance’ is generally a lack, a dearth, a deficit of knowledge about a particular issue or situation, and hence one would hardly expect such absence to be characterized as encyclopedic, which of course means pretty much exactly the opposite.  But it’s just a clever way of speaking about the vastness of the man’s (“His”) shortfall.  That’s the oxymoron.  The paraprosdokian is the use of a strikingly unexpected adjective that suggests vastness of knowledge as modifier of something – ignorance – that is anything but such vastness.

Sure, Eban could have said something like “He’s really dumb” or “His ignorance is deep” and gotten his point across, but the deployment of such pedestrian locutions where a stylish and memorable phrase will do it much more powerfully is exactly what one would expect and gratefully relish from a polyglot who had studied Classics at Cambridge.  Indeed, it was his eloquence that figures prominently in mentions of this intellectual, diplomat and scholar.

In any event, what more felicitous way to characterize an appalling ignorance!

It turns out that this turn of phrase appears, almost meme-like, to have acquired a life of its own and apparently shows up in a number of other contexts, including some questions about what it actually means.

That question, I trust, has now to some degree been answered.

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