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Dehort and dehortation

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I stand firmly with Grambs and Garg in believing that dehort and dehortation should be rescued from the closet of obscurity and brought into the world of popular usage.

 

Currently, though, those two words are familiar only to serious linguaphiles and students of rhetoric, who appreciate their relationship to a classical figure of speech known as dehortatio (DEE-hore-TAY-she-oh or DAY-hore-TAHT-ee-oh).


In The Garden of Eloquence: A Rhetorical Bestiary (1983), Willard R. Espy defined dehortatio as “Dissuasive advice given with authority.” He went on to explain that “Dehortatio is negative persuasion; it tells what not to do.” In providing examples, he gave several famous sayings that did not begin with the word ever, including:

Thou halt have no other gods before me.
(THE FIRST COMMANDMENT)


Doesn’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.
WILLIAM PRESCOTT


At first, the notion that commandments were dehortations came as a surprise, but it made sense once I began to think about it. Many of the Ten Commandments, after all, certainly meet the criterion of dissuasive advice given with authority. And while I accept the idea that dehortations can also begin with the words don’t or do not, I’m not convinced they are the best examples of the form. Look over the following quotations:

Do not blame anybody for your mistakes and failures.
BERNARD M. BARUCH


Don’t try to fine-tune somebody else’s view.
GEORGE H. W. BUSH


Don’t try to solve serious matters in the middle of the night.
PHILIP K. DICK


Do not mistake a child for his symptom.
ERIK ERIKSON


Don’t overestimate your own merits.
BERTRAND RUSSELL


Yes, they are all fine dehortations. And technically, all are examples of the “negative persuasion” that Espy described earlier. But think how much more memorable each could have been if expressed just a bit more forcefully:

Never blame anybody for your mistakes and failures.
Never try to fine-tune somebody else’s view.
Never try to solve serious matters in the middle of the night.
Never mistake a child for his symptom.
Never overestimate your own merits.


The implication, I hope, is apparent. If you’re ever thinking about the best way to offer dissuasive advice-and you want to do it forcefully-select words with impact. And that may mean changing an anemic don’t or a mousy do not into an authoritative never. With a tip of the hat to the rhetorical figure of dehortatio, we might even say:


Never let a weak word diminish the strength of your argument.


Being a realist, I know that dehort and dehortation will probably never become a part of popular usage. But there is another term you might want to consider when describing cautionary warnings and dissuasive advice introduced with the word never. You won’t find the word in any dictionary because I coined it myself.

April 13, 2013

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