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anticlimax

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anticlimax

Described by humorist James Thurber as "the outstanding single anticlimax in the English language"

Definition:

A rhetorical term for an abrupt shift from a serious or noble tone to a less exalted one--often for comic effect. Adjective: anticlimactic.

A narrative anticlimax refers to an unexpected twist in the plot, an incident marked by a sudden diminishment of intensity or significance.

A common type of anticlimax is the figure of catacosmesis: the ordering of words from the most significant to the least significant. (The opposite of catacosmesis is auxesis.) See Examples and Observations, below.

See also:

Etymology:

From the Greek, "down a ladder"

Examples and Observations:

  • "The holy passion of Friendship is of so sweet and steady and loyal and enduring a nature that it will last through a whole lifetime, if not asked to lend money."
    (Mark Twain)


  • "In moments of crisis I size up the situation in a flash, set my teeth, contract my muscles, take a firm grip on myself and, without a tremor, always do the wrong thing."
    (George Bernard Shaw)


  • "The Grand Tour has been a tradition of newly rich countries ever since young British aristocrats took to the Continent in the eighteenth century, picking up languages, antiques, and venereal disease."
    (Evan Osnos, "The Grand Tour." The New Yorker, April 18, 2011)


  • "Jones was having his first date with Miss Smith and was utterly captivated by her. She was beautiful, and intelligent as well, and as dinner proceeded, he was further impressed by her faultless taste.

    "As he hesitated over the after-dinner drink, she intervened to say, 'Oh, let’s have sherry rather than brandy by all means. When I sip sherry, it seems to me that I am transported from the everyday scenes by which I may, at that moment, be surrounded. The flavor, the aroma, bring to mind irresistibly--for what reason I know not--a kind of faerie bit of nature: a hilly field bathed in soft sunshine, a clump of trees in the middle distance, a small brook curving across the scene, nearly at my feet. This, together with the fancied drowsy sound of insects and distant lowing of cattle, brings to my mind a kind of warmth, peace, and serenity, a sort of dovetailing of the world into a beautiful entirety. Brandy, on the other hand, makes me fart.'"
    (Isaac Asimov, Isaac Asimov's Treasury of Humor. Houghton Mifflin, 1971)


  • "Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends."
    (Woody Allen)


  • "He died, like so many young men of his generation, he died before his time. In your wisdom, Lord, you took him, as you took so many bright flowering young men at Khe Sanh, at Langdok, at Hill 364. These young men gave their lives. And so would Donny. Donny, who loved bowling."
    (Walter Shobchak, played by John Goodman, as he prepares to spread Donny’s ashes, The Big Lebowski, 1998)


  • "And as I’m sinkin’
    The last thing that I think
    Is, did I pay my rent?"
    (Jim O'Rourke, "Ghost Ship in a Storm")


  • "He has seen the ravages of war, he has known natural catastrophes, he has been to singles bars."
    (Woody Allen, "Speech to the Graduates")


  • Kant on Anticlimax in Jokes
    "For [Immanuel] Kant, the incongruity in a joke was between the 'something' of the setup and the anticlimactic 'nothing' of the punch line; the ludicrous effect arises 'from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.'"
    (Jim Holt, "You Must Be Kidding." The Guardian, Oct. 25, 2008)


  • Henry Peacham on Catacosmesis
    "Catacosmesis, in Latin ordo, is a meet placing of words among themselves, whereof there be two kinds, the one when the worthiest word is set first, which order is natural, as when we say: God and man, men and women, sun and moon, life and death. And also when that is first told that was first done, which is necessary and seemly. The other kind of order is artificial, and in form contrary to this, as when the worthiest or weightiest word is set last: for the cause of amplifying, which the rhetoricians call incrementum . . ..

    "The use of this first kind of order doth most properly serve to the property and elegancy of speech, and due observation of nature and dignity: which form is well represented in the civil and solemn customs of nations, where the worthiest persons are always first named and highest placed."
    (Henry Peacham, The Garden of Eloquence, 1577)
Pronunciation: ant-tee-CLI-max
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