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Monty Python, Figuratively Speaking

The Lighter Side of Figurative Language

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Monty Python, Figuratively Speaking

The members of Monty Python (also known as The Pythons): Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, and Michael Palin (1969)

And now for something completely different, we visit with renowned rhetoricians John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and the unforgivably late Graham Chapman. Known collectively as Monty Python, these six cheeky scholars have revitalized countless figures of speech over the past 40-odd years.

Here, to the rousing sound of Sousa's "Liberty Bell" march, we present some silly examples of Pythonic word play.

  • Hyperbole and Understatement
    In "The Four Yorkshiremen," one of the best known Python sketches, hyperbole takes the form of competitive boasting. Here's how the sketch concludes:
    Terry Jones: Well, we had it tough. We used to have to get up out of the shoebox at twelve o'clock at night, and lick the road clean with our tongues. We had half a handful of freezing cold gravel, worked 24 hours a day at the mill for four pence every six years, and when we got home, our Dad would slice us in two with a bread knife.

    Eric Idle: Right. I had to get up in the morning at 10 o'clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, eat a lump of cold poison, work 29 hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing "Hallelujah."

    Michael Palin: But you try and tell the young people today that, and they won't believe ya'.

    All: Nope, nope.
    (Live at the Hollywood Bowl, 1982)
    As for understatement, consider the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (recently updated in the musical comedy Spamalot) where King Arthur (played by Graham Chapman) hacks off the Black Knight's arms. "'Tis but a scratch!" says the Black Knight (John Cleese). "I've had worse. . . . It's just a flesh wound."

  • Epithet
    The repeated use of a modifier in front of a name (as in "fleet-footed Achilles") is usually a straightforward way of defining a character. But in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (and again in Spamalot), that convention is subverted when "brave Sir Robin" (played by Eric Idle) runs away from the Three-Headed Giant. A minstrel tells the tale:
    Bravely bold Sir Robin rode forth from Camelot.
    He was not afraid to die,
    O brave Sir Robin.
    He was not at all afraid to be killed in nasty ways,
    Brave, brave, brave, brave Sir Robin! . . .

    Brave Sir Robin ran away,
    Bravely ran away, away.
    When danger reared its ugly head,
    He bravely turned his tail and fled.

    Yes, brave Sir Robin turned about
    And gallantly, he chickened out.
    Bravely taking to his feet,
    He beat a very brave retreat,
    Bravest of the brave, Sir Robin.

  • Meiosis
    Many conventions of chivalric romances are upended in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Early in the film, an "anarcho-syndicalist" peasant cuts the legendary Lady of the Lake down to size with the figure of meiosis, a concise form of invective.
    King Arthur: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by Divine Right that I Arthur was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king.

    Peasant: Listen mate, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.

    King Arthur: Be quiet!

    Peasant: You can't expect to wield supreme executive power because some watery tart threw a sword at you.

    King Arthur: Shut up!

    Peasant: If I went around saying I was an emperor just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me, they'd put me away.
    (Graham Chapman as King Arthur and Michael Palin as the peasant)

  • Polysyndeton and the Running Style
    In the Travel Agent sketch, a disgruntled tourist named Mr. Smoke-Too-Much launches into a polysyndetic diatribe, which turns out to be a lengthy demonstration of the running style. Here's how it begins:
    I mean I'm fed up going abroad and being treated like sheep. What's the point of being carted round in buses, surrounded by sweaty mindless oafs from Kettering and Coventry in their cloth caps and their cardigans and their transistor radios and their Sunday Mirrors, complaining about the tea--"Oh they don't make it properly here, do they, not like at home"--and stopping at Majorcan bodegas, selling fish and chips and Watney's Red Barrel and calamares and two veg and sitting in cotton sun frocks squirting Timothy White's suncream all over their puffy raw swollen purulent flesh 'cos they "overdid it on the first day." . . .

    And being herded into endless Hotel Miramars and Bellvueses and Continentals with their international luxury modern roomettes and their Watney's Red Barrel and their swimming pools full of fat German businessmen pretending to be acrobats and forming pyramids and frightening the children and barging into queues and if you're not at your table spot on seven you miss the bowl of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, the first item on the menu of International Cuisine, and every Thursday night there's bloody cabaret in the bar, featuring a tiny emaciated dago with nine-inch hips and some big fat bloated tart with her hair Brylcreemed down and a big arse presenting Flamenco for Foreigners. . . .
    (Eric Idle in episode 31 of Monty Python's Flying Circus)

  • Congeries, Synathroesmus, and Bdelygmia
    Both congeries (the piling up of words or phrases) and synathroesmus (the accumulation of adjectives, often in the spirit of invective) are forms of rhetorical accumulation. John Cleese unleashes these related figures in the "Vocational Guidance Counselor Sketch":
    You see, our experts describe you as an appallingly dull fellow, unimaginative, timid, lacking in initiative, spineless, easily dominated, no sense of humour, tedious company and irrepressibly drab and awful. And whereas in most professions these would be considerable drawbacks, in chartered accountancy they are a positive boon.
    (Counselor John Cleese addressing Mr. Anchovy [Michael Palin] in episode 10 of Monty Python's Flying Circus)
    Cleese, of course, is a master of insulting language, in particular the litanies of verbal abuse known as bdelygmia:
    Yes, well, of course, that's just the sort of blinkered philistine pig ignorance I've come to expect from you non-creative garbage. You sit there on your loathsome, spotty behinds squeezing blackheads, not caring a tinker's cuss about the struggling artist. You excrement! You lousy hypocritical whining toadies with your lousy color TV sets and your Tony Jacklin golf clubs and your bleeding masonic secret handshakes! You wouldn't let me join, would you, you blackballing bastards. Well I wouldn't become a freemason now if you went down on your lousy, stinking, purulent knees and begged me.
    ("The Architects Sketch," episode 17 of Monty Python's Flying Circus)

  • Epizeuxis, Polyptoton, and Commoratio
    Repetition of all sorts can be used to create humorous effects. In the Pythons' famous "Spam Sketch," the dominant figurative device is epizeuxis--repetition of a word or phrase with no words in between:
    Waitress: Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! Bloody vikings. You can't have egg, bacon, spam and sausage without the spam.
    Mrs. Bun: I don't like spam!
    Mr. Bun: Shh dear, don't cause a fuss. I'll have your spam. I love it. I'm having spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, baked beans, spam, spam, spam and spam.
    (Episode 25 of Monty Python's Flying Circus)
    Polyptoton is the repetition of words derived from the same root but with different endings. We see it at work in the self-introduction of Roger Shrubber (played by Eric Idle) in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974): "Yes. Shrubberies are my trade. I am a shrubber. My name is Roger the Shrubber. I arrange, design, and sell shrubberies."

    And commoratio, the repetition of an idea using different words, is carried well beyond the point of absurdity in the classic "Dead Parrot Sketch":
    It's not pining, it's passed on! This parrot is no more! It has ceased to be. It's expired and gone to meet its maker. This is a late parrot. It's a stiff! Bereft of life, it rests in peace. If you hadn't nailed it to the perch, it would be pushing up the daisies. It's rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-parrot.
    (John Cleese in episode 8 of Monty Python's Flying Circus)

  • Hypophora
    In the courtroom scene that opens episode three of the TV series, a prisoner (Eric Idle) employs the rhetorical strategy of raising questions and then immediately answering them:
    Harold Larch: What frees the prisoner in his lonely cell, chained within the bondage of rude walls, far from the owl of Thebes? What fires and stirs the woodcock in his springe or wakes the drowsy apricot betides? What goddess doth the storm toss'd mariner offer her most tempestuous prayers to? Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!

    Judge: It's only a bloody parking offense.

  • Circumlocution
    Circumlocution may serve as a deliberate rhetorical strategy, but for chat-show guest Mr. Pudifoot (played by Graham Chapman), talking in a roundabout way is merely an occasional vice.
    Interviewer: Good evening. Well, we have in the studio tonight a man who says things in a very roundabout way. Isn't that so, Mr. Pudifoot?

    Mr. Pudifoot: Yes.

    Interviewer: Have you always said things in a very roundabout way?

    Mr. Pudifoot: Yes.

    Interviewer: Well, I can't help noticing that, for someone who claims to say things in a very roundabout way, your last two answers have had very little of the discursive quality about them.

    Mr. Pudifoot: Oh, well, I'm not very talkative today. It's a form of defensive response to intense interrogative stimuli. I used to get it badly when I was a boy--well, when I say "very badly," in fact, do you remember when there was that fashion for, you know, little poodles with small coats . . .

    Interviewer: Ah, now you're beginning to talk in a roundabout way.

    Mr. Pudifoot: Oh, I'm sorry.

    Interviewer: No, no, no, no. Please do carry on because that is in fact why we wanted you on the show.

    Mr. Pudifoot: I thought it was because you were interested in me as a human being. (gets up and leaves)
    (Episode 26 of Monty Python's Flying Circus)

For more examples of Pythonic word play, see our annotated edition of Monty Python's "Announcement for People Who Like Figures of Speech."

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