What is Paradiastole?

Paradiastole: The rhetorical re-description of a behavior, action or situation normally considered to be a vice in a completely moral light.
Paradiastole: The rhetorical re-description of a behavior, action or situation normally considered to be a vice in a completely moral light.

Paradiastole (known with the epithets “the misnomer” or “curry-favor” ) is the rhetorical re-descriptionOpens in new window of a behaviorOpens in new window, actionOpens in new window or situation normally considered to be a vice in a completely moral light, so as to extenuate its moral implication.

In other words, paradiastole consists in making the best of a bad thing; the technique consists in the euphemisticOpens in new window substitution of a negative word with something more positive. For example, what we might call hypocrisy in a ruler, by paradiastolic substitution, we call it craftiness or expediency; in other words, in paradiastole, what most people consider a negative traits or vicesOpens in new window, we reframe them as virtuesOpens in new window.

Paradiastole is when by a mannerly interpretation, we do excuse our own vices, or other men’s whom we do defend, by calling them virtues.’ This figure is used, when vices are excused. Quintilian describe the paradiastole as the means

  • “by which we distinguish between similar things, as ‘When you call yourself wise instead of astute, brave instead of rash, economical instead of mean.’”

Henry PeachamOpens in new window aptly calls paradiastole “an instrument of excuse”. In the same vein, George PuttenhamOpens in new window, in his detailed knowledge of the figure ‘paradiastole,’ makes a forceful comparison between meiosisOpens in new window and the paradiastole, opining that: ‘when we diminish and abase a thing by way of spight or malice, as it were to deprave it’, this is an instance of meiosis.’ However, in highlighting the disparity of meiosis from paradiastole, he offered:

  • ‘But if such moderation of words tend to flattery, soothing, or excusing, it is by the figure paradiastole, which therefore nothing improperly we call the Curry-favell, as when we make the best of a bad thing, or turn a signification to the more plausible sence; as, to call an unthrift, a liberall Gentleman: the foolish-hardy, valiant or courageous: the niggard, … moderating and abating the force of the matter by craft, and for a pleasing purpose.’
Classic Example

As part of his forensic oratoryOpens in new window, the Machiavellian narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart” seems to employ Paradiastole, especially in the paragraph. Consider his use of nouns and adverbs:

  • “You should have seen how wisely I proceeded — with what caution — with what foresight — with what dissimulation I went to work! … Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in!”
  • In the above lines, what we might call perfidiously, he calls “wisely”; what we might call sneakiness, he calls “caution”; what we might call scheming, he calls “foresight”; what we might call treacherously, he calls “cunningly.” Even the one word in that catalogue that has negative connotations, “dissimulation,” he would translate as ingenuity. — ( Brett Zimmerman, Edgar Allan Poe: Rhetoric and StyleOpens in new window)
Important Hint! 

The figure, Paradiastole is employed at such crucial point, when by means of an excessively polite interpretation, we speak ingratiatingly or in the manner of curry-favorOpens in new window, so as to express approval of our own vices or those of others, as the wrong-headed reprobates of our own time are accustomed to do, who scratch each other’s backs in exactly this way, as the proverb has it.

Further Readings:
Skinner, ‘Thomas Hobbes: Rhetoric and the Construction of Morality’, (pp. 27 – 28);
Susenbrotus (1540, p. 45 – 46);
Peacham (1577) N4v;
Puttenham (“paradiastole,” “curry favell” 1589, p. 195).