I love this job. It may not pay much but it’s full of surprises. Yesterday I rambled into my favourite coffee shop and was instantly accosted by one of the regulars.
“Hey, Black!” he said by way of introduction, “You called” (insert Member of Parliament’s name here) “a ‘nimrod’ in your column last week. You know what a nimrod is?”
A nimrod, I replied, is a fool, a klutz, an idiot, a clown. You think I was too kind?
“Hah!” said my inquisitor. “You’re dead wrong! A nimrod is a mighty hunter!”
Well … literally and technically — yeah. ‘Nimrod,’ according to the Bible, was a great grandson of Noah. He became a king and founded Babylon. He was also, legend has it, a guy who knew his way around a bow and arrow, a spear, a dagger and other instruments of inter-species domination.
‘Nimrod’ ought to reflect that heady lineage and be a word of praise but it’s not. It means in fact, precisely the opposite. If somebody calls you a nimrod, they are probably Not Your Friend.
Elmer Fudd — when he’s duded up in a deerstalking cap and fruitlessly flailing the bushes in search of Bugs Bunny — is a nimrod.
So what do you call a word or a phrase that actually means the opposite of what it’s supposed to mean? You call it a phrop. Sir Arnold Lunn made up the word by combining ‘phrase’ and ‘opposite’ and lopping their tails off Nimrod-style.
We use phrops from time to time — at least I know I do. When I say to the annoying lapel-clinger who has been dogging me at a party “we must do lunch one day,” what I really mean is “if I can help it, this is the last time in recorded history that we will be in one and other’s presence, unless we have the misfortune to share a common graveyard.”
Similarly, when someone launches into a critique of something I’ve written with the words “with all due respect” I know that I’m about to be linguistically rabbit-punched and groin-kneed and ‘due respect’ will not be much in evidence.
Canadians resilient enough to watch the cable TV public affairs channel may happen upon Question Period from the House of Commons in Ottawa. There they will see phrops flying back and forth like badminton birdies. A reference to a challenge from “my learned colleague” sitting across the floor really means “I can’t believe I have to waste my time responding to this pompous gasbag,” And when Stephen Harper addresses Michael Ignatieff as “the Right Honourable Leader of the Opposition,” his tone, his body language and those rattlesnake eyes portend a classic phrop in the making.
Canadian politicians, alas, are not in the same league as a silver-tongued phropist like the nineteenth century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who wrote to a novelist seeking his endorsement: “Thank you for sending me your book. I shall waste no time reading it.”
But you don’t have to go to the House of Commons to hear a decent phrop. When someone butts in front of you with “I hope you don’t mind…” — he doesn’t really give a bleep what you think. When someone says “I don’t wanna brag, but…” — he’s about to brag. When someone says, “To be perfectly frank…” he’s about to lie.
But a phrop is not always a weasely linguistic manoeuvre. Sometimes it’s so perfect that it’s sublime. A few years ago, an Oxford language philosopher by the name of J.L. Austen was lecturing a class on the phenomenon of ‘double negatives’ — when two ‘no’ words are used in the same clause.
He told his listeners many languages use double negatives to make a positive; double positives are never used to make a negative.
From the back of the class came a voice that muttered, “Yeah. Right.”