This seems to me to be a kind of rhetorical figure, but I cannot find a classical term for it in Silva Rhetoricae. Examples include the following from Tristram Shandy (Vol. 2 Chap. 24):

I define a nose, as follows,—intreating only beforehand, and beseeching my readers, both male and female, of what age, complexion, and condition soever, for the love of God and their own souls, to guard against the temptations and suggestions of the devil, and suffer him by no art or wile to put any other ideas into their minds, than what I put into my definition.—For by the word Nose, throughout all this long chapter of noses, and in every other part of my work, where the word Nose occurs,—I declare, by that word I mean a Nose, and nothing more, or less.

This of course makes it quite impossible not to read nose in the book as also referring to penis.

Another example is an advertisement for Joyce’s Ulysses in America, citing the 1933 decision of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York that the book was not obscene—which advertisement boils down to “Hey, Buddy, wanna buy a dirty book?”

Yet another is the line “this is not an offer of prostitution” on Web sites, which is an almost infallible indicator that the exact opposite is the case. (For a g-rated account of the use of this line, see Knoxville News-Sentinel story about Craigslist.)

And finally, though it is perhaps not quite exactly the same thing, I would point to the classic device of humorous fiction—dating back all the way back to Cervantes and also seen in Mark Twain and Jerome K. Jerome—of insisting that it is not fiction but rather literal truth, which insistence goes on safely within the fictional compact by which readers agree to be entertainingly lied to.

What can we call this figure? Simply terming such usage facetious or disingenuous seems to fall short of designating such flat opposition between the literal and the intentionally conveyed meaning.

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    Can this be anything but ironic? – Dan Bron Apr 19 '15 at 18:56
  • Scout's honor, @DanBron: 30 minutes of research :-) – ScotM Apr 19 '15 at 19:13
  • Related is a class of utterance that conveys the opposite of its literal meaning without the speaker intending it to: "I am not a racist," "I don't mean to pry," "I'm no fool," etc. – Brian Donovan Apr 20 '15 at 0:53
  • I’d consider this a form of apophasis – njboot Apr 21 '15 at 21:16

Apophasis is the term.

OED defines the term by quoting John Smith's The Mysterie of Rhetorique Unvail'd (1657):

a kind of Irony, whereby we deny that we say or doe that which we especially say or doe.

Here is the definition from grammar.about.com:

A rhetorical term for the mention of something in disclaiming intention of mentioning it--or pretending to deny what is really affirmed. Adjective: apophatic or apophantic. Similar to paralepsis and praeteritio.

Wikipedia mentions that it is a rhetorical relative of irony and lists the following equivalents:

Also called paralipsis (παράλειψις) – also spelled paraleipsis or paralepsis –, or occupatio, and known also as praeteritio, preterition, cataphasis (κατάφασις), antiphrasis (ἀντίφρασις), or parasiopesis (παρασιώπησις).

  • +1 This is definitely more precise. – ScotM Apr 23 '15 at 17:51

It certainly couldn't be as simple as irony:

The use of irony in literature refers to playing around with words such that the meaning implied by a sentence or word is actually different from the literal meaning. Often irony is used to suggest the stark contrast of the literal meaning being put forth. The deeper, real layer of significance is revealed not by the words themselves but the situation and the context in which they are placed.

Since irony would insult us with simplicity, suggestive irony may feel better:


2.2 Evoke:

From Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Volume 29:

But Chaucer went even farther than this in his use of the Deadly Seven as a framework in these narratives. With delightfully suggestive irony, he opposed practice to precept, rule of life to dogma, by making several of the story-tellers incarnate the very Sins that they explicitly condemn.
Emphasis mine

From Aesthetic distance in Chrétien de Troyes irony and comedy in Cligès and Perceval by Peter Haidu:

The details of this ecphrasis and the obvious, repetitious word-play, make one suspect that Chrétien preferred to drive the lesson home to his audience rather than indulge in his more usual suggestive irony.
Emphasis mine

  • I will grant you that Tristram Shandy is being ironical, and certainly suggestive, and that Cervantes et al. were being ironical, but I do not think my other examples can well be described so. Though the advertiser of the American edition of Ulysses was being suggestive, and other parts of the Web pages bearing the "This is not an offer . . ." line are likely to be suggestive as well, I do not think this is essential to the figure. – Brian Donovan Apr 19 '15 at 22:08
  • +1 for actually employing the figure in question at the beginning of your answer, but perhaps there you have spoken truer than you purposed. The figure that I am interested in naming overlaps very considerably with irony, but not all instances of irony are it, nor all instances of it ironical. Neither Clytaemestra's wonderfully ironic lines in Agamemnon nor the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice (a favorite example for Wayne Booth) are instances of diametric opposition of intentionally conveyed meaning to literal meaning. – Brian Donovan Apr 20 '15 at 3:11

Many thanks for the various answers, but at the risk of seeming argumentative I think none of the classical figure-names offered quite seems to fit. I will instead propose the somewhat cumbersome term disingenuous disclaimer.


I think "sarcasm" is probably the technical jargon for this.

M-W defines "sarcasm" as : the use of words that mean the opposite of what you really want to say .

  • see also litote: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Litotes – Emily Gudino Apr 19 '15 at 22:09
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    M-W continues "especially in order to insult someone, to show irritation, or to be funny" and then (under "Full Definition") "a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain . . . a mode of satirical wit depending for its effect on bitter, caustic, and often ironic language that is usually directed against an individual." That connotation of hostility or scorn is I think quite absent from at least some of my examples. – Brian Donovan Apr 19 '15 at 23:06
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    And litotes is a matter of (for instance) substituting not bad for good, which may make for ironic understatement but not the total opposition between literal meaning and what is intentionally conveyed. – Brian Donovan Apr 19 '15 at 23:07
  • My, you certainly seem argumentative, Mr. Donovan. Might I point out that when a dictionary says especially, it does not mean always? – Brian Hitchcock Apr 20 '15 at 5:59

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