Comedians are addicted to paraprosdokians. And most of them don’t even know it. Take Henny Youngman – please.

Paraprosdokian,  (n. and adj.) refers to a sentence or series of sentences with a surprise ending that causes the listener or reader to reinterpret the first part. Groucho Marx (and his writers) thrived on them.

In “Animal Crackers” (written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind) Groucho’s character, Captain Spaulding, has two memorable paraprosdokians:

Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I dunno.”

“We took some pictures of the native girls, but they’re not developed yet. We’re going back next year, when they’re more developed.”

In “A Night at the Opera” (also by Kaufman and Ryskind) Groucho’s character, Otis B. Driftwood, remarks, “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.”

According to Wikipedia paraprosdokian derives from Greek “παρα-“, meaning ‘beyond’ and “προσδοκία”, meaning ‘expectation,’ but apparently it’s a recent coinage. The term floats around the Internet, but it occurs in only a few print sources and not in standard dictionaries such as Merriam Webster or the Oxford English Dictionary, even in their online versions.

Writers and speakers have used this kind of misdirection for centuries, for example: “Laudandus, ornandus, tollendus. [He must be praised, decorated … and tolerated.]” Cicero on Octavian.  How have we survived so long without a term for this essential tool of wit?

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