Context: A few decades ago, during the electoral campaign for governor, there was a televised debate between the three major parties candidates. Candidate A, the favorite according to the polls, was notorious for heavy drinking and rumor had it that he had become a real alcoholic. The three candidates arrived at the studio and when Candidate C shook hands with Candidate A he said: It's a great pleasure to meet you, Mr A, and "I'm happy to see that you are sober as a judge". Candidate A simply smiled and said "Thank you", perhaps hoping it had gone unnoticed.

First I thought this might be a figure of speech like "Ad hominem, poisoning the well". Then again, it doesn't look or sound like a figure of speech. Is it a rhetorical device? What kind? Is there a term for it?

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    Ad hominem. The trope itself is just a simile; it's use might be called innuendo. – deadrat Jul 6 '15 at 1:00
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    "Sober as a judge" is an old expression meaning, simply, very sober, without any obvious impairment from intoxication, and perhaps quite dull and dreary in demeanor. I'd say it's simply being used as a left-handed compliment. – Hot Licks Jul 6 '15 at 1:32
  • @ermanen - a google-search revealed (for the first time) your OP to me, which I enjoyed and +1'd earlier today (it deserved a better reception, IMO), also re-posted Mr. Lymington's hilarious commentary. – user98990 Jul 6 '15 at 20:18

It might be paralipsis:

Stating and drawing attention to something in the very act of pretending to pass it over. A kind of irony. (From the Silva Rhetoricae website at Brigham Young University)

I say "might", because it's a term I only recently came across, and the remark in your question is more oblique than the example on the page I linked to (which, as it happens, also involves accusing a politician of drinking). But the intention is clearly the same, and on the Wikipedia page for paralipsis (which redirects to apophasis), another example is given in which Ronald Reagan implies something about a political opponent in a similarly oblique manner:

When asked about the allegations that Dukakis had received psychological treatment in the past, Reagan responded by saying with a smile, "Look, I’m not going to pick on an invalid". (Wikipedia)

If that is indeed paralipsis/apophasis, then I would say that, in this context, "I'm happy to see that you are sober as a judge" is too.

  • Please cite the source of your material and link, in case the link becomes obsolete or suffers link-rot. – user98990 Jul 6 '15 at 1:30
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    Agreed with @LittleEva. There no pretence to gloss over his inebriation here. A paralipsis would be something like: "Let's not dwell on you being sober for the first time ever." – Tushar Raj Jul 6 '15 at 8:25
  • @LittleEva: Thanks for the kind words. I'm happy to compete with friendly, fair-minded people like yourself! :) – j_random_hacker Jul 6 '15 at 11:47
  • @TusharRaj: I think it comes down to how literal you require the speaker's counter-claim (i.e., the claim not to be bringing the negative topic up) to be. "Let's not dwell" and the like are explicit counter-claims, but I would argue that in the OP's example the counter-claim is implicit in the carefully constructed appearance of saying something positive about the other man. (Perhaps there's another, different term for this though?) – j_random_hacker Jul 6 '15 at 12:11
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    A clever example of paralipsis/apophasis: Prisoner: "I was drunk as a judge." Court: "Surely you mean 'drunk as a lord'?" P: "Yes, my lord." – Comment by Tim Lymington ;-) – user98990 Jul 6 '15 at 12:28

Double Entendre: ambiguity of meaning arising from language that lends itself to more than one interpretation. (Google)

Sober adjective

1: sparing in the use of food and drink: abstemious.

2: marked by sedate or gravely or earnestly thoughtful character or demeanor.

(Merriam-Webster online)

Sober: etymology: mid-14c., "moderate in desires or actions, temperate, restrained," especially "abstaining from strong drink," also "calm, quiet, not overcome by emotion," from Old French sobre "decent; sober" (12c.), from Latin sobrius "not drunk, temperate, moderate, sensible," from a variant of se- "without" (see se-) + ebrius "drunk," of unknown origin. Meaning "not drunk at the moment" is from late 14c.; also "appropriately solemn, serious, not giddy." Related: Soberly; soberness. Sobersides "sedate, serious-minded person" is recorded from 1705. (etymonline)

The adjective sober has several distinct meanings, two of which are in play here.

Sober as a Judge idiom / simile

1. Cliché very formal, somber, or stuffy. (*Also: as ~.) You certainly look gloomy, Bill. You're sober as a judge. Tom's as sober as a judge. I think he's angry.

2. Cliché not drunk; alert and completely sober. (*Also: as ~.) John's drunk? No, he's as sober as a judge. You should be sober as a judge when you drive a car. (The Free Dictionary)

So, within this rather clever turn of phrase I can see two double entendres operating - one based on the two distinct senses of the term "sober," and the other utilizing the fixed phrase "sober as a judge," to mean both 1) “sober as a judge” which plays upon the reputation – deserved or not – for the propriety of judges (serious, grave, solemn, sedate, staid, earnest), and 2) a literal, rather than figurative, take on the simile, i.e., "I'm happy to see you are abstemious when acting in the official capacity as a judge."

  • I can only see one meaning here -- the implication that Mr. A is a drunk. What's the other meaning? (Is it that a governor is a type of judge?) – j_random_hacker Jul 6 '15 at 1:08
  • @j_random_hacker That's it. – Centaurus Jul 6 '15 at 1:10
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    Ah, so there's a double meaning on "sober" and a clever connection with "judge" :) – j_random_hacker Jul 6 '15 at 1:17
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    @j_random_hacker No double meaning in the phrase "sober as a judge", just the usual idiomatic meaning. The insult comes from "I'm happy to see . . ." suggesting that one might have expected otherwise. – Kevin Krumwiede Jul 6 '15 at 4:45
  • @Kevin Krumwiede - even when abstracted from all context, standing alone, "sober as a judge" is capable of two interpretations due to the two disparate senses of the adjective sober. When the phrase is recontextualized within the OP's explicitly political setting, another interpretation opens up, i.e., a literal rather then the merely figurative understanding of "as a judge." – user98990 Jul 6 '15 at 11:11

I understand that the question is asking for the name of this type of remark.

It has been pointed out already that 'sober as a judge' is a well known expression.

As a whole however, I interpret the comment as a deliberate slight; he wanted to highlight his opponent's alcoholism in a somewhat indirect manner.

Hence, in British English, the comment could be labelled as a snide remark.

Snide: (of a remark, etc) maliciously derogatory; supercilious

CED as found at thefreedictionary.com

Also, I think that it was rather sarcastic.


I haven't heard this variant before but The Free Dictionary says it means you're "to not at all drunk". The comparison to an honorable man of the law, who presumably would not drink very much, is probably just meant to intensify the sentiment that you're sober.

If I wanted to get the sentiment I probably would've said "sober as a priest on sunday" (Internet Movie Database, quoting Seamus McFly from Back to the Future III) myself.

be as sober as a judge. (n.d.) Cambridge Idioms Dictionary, 2nd ed.. (2006) retrieved from The Free Dictionary by Farlex.

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