An Introduction to Asteismus

Asteismus (specifically termed as figure of reply), is the rhetorical term for achieving polite or soft mockery whereby the replier catches a sensitive word and redirects it back to the interlocutor with an unexpected twist. In alignment to the technique of the Asteismus, Cuddon (64) defines it thus, “A contrived turning or twisting of the meaning of something said so that it implies something else.”

Asteismus is well known for its use of clever, delicate words that praises while appearing to reproach or blames while seemingly flattering. It is a form of social irony commonly used amongst friends.

Notable Examples of Asteismus
  • Jaques: By my troth, I was seeking for a fool when I found you.
    Orlando: He is drowned in the brook. Look but in, and you shall see him.
    Jaques: There I shall see mine own figure.
    Orlando: Which I take to be either a fool or a cipher.
  • — (William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act Three, scene 1)
  • Judge: You're charged with vagrancy. Are you guilty or not guilty?
    Ollie: Not guilty, Your Highness.
    Judge: On what grounds?
    Stan: We weren't on the grounds. We were sleeping on the park bench.
  • — (Laurel and Hardy, Scram, 1932)
  • Otis B. Driftwood: You see that spaghetti?
    Now, behind that spaghetti is none other than Herman Gottlieb, director of the New York Opera Company. Do you follow me? Mrs. Claypool: Yes.
    Otis B. Driftwood: Well, stop following me or I'll have you arrested!
  • — (Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont in A Night at the Opera, 1935)
Important Hint! 

A number of rhetors opines that ‘Asteismus’ does not involve sarcasm or rudeness. In their observation, asteismus is an inoffensive “civil jest,” a “merry scoff” the likes of which has come to be associated with the urbane wit of the sophisticated city-dweller; according to them, asteismus is clearly associated with the pun.

Further Readings:
American Rhetoric AssonanceOpens in new window
Brett Zimmerman | Edgar Allan Poe: Rhetoric and Style (cat.149);
Gregory T. Howard | Dictionary of Rhetorical Terms.