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Calvin Untroped

Readers of this space know that I teach classical tropes every fall (see “Tropes”). The basic assignment that I give my trope babies is a “lemon squeeze” of a passage—identify all the tropes that you can—and I usually pick out something that is reliably rich with tropes: poetic prose perhaps, or oratorical prose (Lincoln, Kennedy, King, etc.). But tropes are where you find them and the other week the trope babies and I had a go at one of my all time favorite comic strips, just one example from Bill Watterson’s brilliant Calvin and Hobbes series. I hope you will be surprised at all the tropes we teased out of it. Tropes are as hardworking now as they were in Aristotle’s or Cicero’s day. And they are still great fun.

Just to get you up to speed, tropes are turns of phrase, fancy things you can do with words and phrases: chiasmus, hyperbaton, anaphora, anadiplosis.* But they also include argumentative strategies, amplifying strategies, and more. Think of all the strategies that a good lawyer would employ in her summation to the jury. Or that a politician, trying to hang onto his job, would fall back on.

So. Here is Calvin ragging his dad. Calvin talks like no kid ever did, but Dad, unlike most dads in comic strips, is no slouch himself. He is a cool adversary; he may be a foil, but he’s not a fool. And the mom is just...well, she’s Mom, the bemused observer.

I would sum up this strip with a very serviceable term that Aristotle never knew—chutzpa—though the Greeks must have been aware of the concept (impudence, effrontery). Oddly, I can’t find a trope that captures that same idea sufficiently. And there are scarcely any tropes of word or phrase here (see above, chiasmus, anaphora, and the like) unless we try to put a name to the elevated diction that Calvin uses in the first panel. The best I can do is to say that it is the opposite of aphelia, plain speech. Well, wait, I suppose bomphiologia is not too wide of the mark (think “bombastic”), or even macrologia, and it is nicely undercut by that final slangy “botched.”

Clearly insultatio, which needs no translation, figures twice in this exchange, first in Calvin’s question and then in his dad’s adroit reply. An exchange like this, a kind of thrust and counter thrust, is called anticategoria (were the first attack unanswered, we would have categoria). On second thought, categoria may be a bit too strong in characterizing Calvin’s question. Perhaps accusatio, which also needs no translation, will do. Apodixis—referring to generally accepted principles—might work here, too, in that the point that Calvin is raising, one generation’s trying to redeem itself by means of the next, is hardly a new idea. It is a stock idea, in fact, for armchair shrinks.

But epiplexis carries the day in that first panel. One of at least a half dozen question tropes, it mean asking a question to upbraid or reproach. (“Were you born stupid or did you have to work up to it?”) As with erotesis, the classic “rhetorical question,” Calvin pretends he is looking for an answer when he really isn’t. He is just poking the old man with a not very blunt stick. And certainly Dad is not going to say, “Gee, I guess I am.” If he did, we would have no comic strip.

Instead, he makes an understated, sarcastic reply, which is called chleuasmos. He begins with a hypothesis (“If I were”) and then demolishes it with antithesis—“You can bet I’d be re-evaluating my strategy,” an ironic (ironia, sarcasmus) twist on the basic “if/then” form. Touché!

That alone would be a grand joke, but Watterson is not finished (who ever heard of a two panel strip?). Calvin runs to his mother and whines, “Mom, Dad keeps insulting me.” This is called mempsis (not to be confused with the city in Egypt...or Tennessee): complaining of injuries and (by implication) pleading for redress.

Now that’s chutzpa!

*Chiasmus: the “abba” trope (“the incredibly practical and the practically incredible”). Hyperbaton: changing usual word order (“strong you must be, Luke Skywalker”). Anaphora: beginning successive sentences with the same phrase. Anadiplosis: Beginning a clause with the same word or phrase with which the previous one ended (“we need a few good men, men who...”).

Meet Your Macinstructor

Jerome Shea is an emeritus professor of English at the University of New Mexico, where he still teaches his classical tropes course every fall and his prose style course every spring. He has been the Weekend Wonk since January of 2007. His email is


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