Copia is defined in our Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms as "expansive richness as a stylistic goal." Now, that goal may seem to run counter to our advice to cut the clutter from our writing, but, as George Gershwin put it, that "ain't necessarily so." To learn more about copia, let's see how a 20th-century French author applied this ancient rhetorical strategy.
We begin with a little story--a very little story. It's the one about a young man on a crowded bus during rush hour. He accuses a fellow passenger of jostling him and then grabs a vacant seat. Two hours later, the same fellow is observed being told by a friend that he "ought to get an extra button" put on his overcoat.
Ah, now wait--maybe I didn't tell it right. Let's try this again with litotes:
Some of us were traveling together. A young man, who didn't look very intelligent, spoke to the man next to him for a few moments, then he went and sat down. Two hours later I met him again; he was with a friend and was talking about clothes.
Hmmm. Rather dry, isn't it, and you're still looking puzzled. Perhaps you'd prefer the version with distinctio: "In an S bus (which is not to be confused with a trespass), I saw (not an eyesore) a chap (not a Bath one) . . .." No, that's not really clarifying anything. So let's try it metaphorically: "In the center of the day, tossed among the shoal of traveling sardines in a coleopter with a big white carapace, a chicken . . .."
What's going on here?
Sixty years ago, in a volume titled Exercices de Style, Raymond Queneau first related this unexceptional tale--in 99 different ways. As a haiku, a telegram, a word game, and an ode. As apostrophe, onomatopoeia, and parechesis. Even as interjections: "Psst! h'm! ah! oh! hem! ah! ha! . . ."
Now, you may ask, what would compel anybody to write 99 versions of the same dull story? As Queneau's English translator, Barbara Wright, explains, it's to explore "the possibilities of language. . . . He pushes language around in a multiplicity of directions to see what will happen." He does it, in short, because he can do it.
Copia as a Rhetorical Exercise
But as we've suggested, there's nothing especially avant-garde about Queneau's Exercises in Style. Such playful rhetorical exercises were popular in the schoolrooms of Shakespeare's day. A favorite textbook of that time, De Copia by Erasmus, illustrated the exercise with more than 150 variations on the simple sentence (in Latin), "Your letter pleased me greatly."
Critics of Copia
Admittedly, copia has had its critics. As rhetorician Ann Moss has observed, "There were ethical objections to a profligate verbal luxuriance indifferent to moral discrimination, and a sense that copia, unalloyed, represented rhetoric's disturbing capacity to persuade against the truth" (Encyclopedia of Rhetoric, p. 176). Put simply, some have associated the "exhilarating verbal energy" of copia with fancy talk, hot air, and self-indulgent balderdash.
A few writers--James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Thomas Pynchon, Mark Danielewski--can get away with highly inventive, experimental prose. But most of us cannot. Our primary goal is not to show off in our compositions but to make sense.
Yet if we view copia as an exercise, in Queneau's sense, rather than as an end in itself, perhaps there is some value to this ancient strategy.
The Value of Copia
Why should we, as students and teachers of English, care about copia? Because the exercise still serves a useful purpose: not to promote windy repetition or cleverness for its own sake but to encourage stylistic experimentation and flexibility.
Having to express an idea in a variety of ways can help us to understand how and why good writing is much more than just correct writing. As we note in The Characteristics of Good Writing, effective prose "responds to the interests and needs of our readers." To achieve that goal, we should be ready as we draft to experiment with words, tinker with sentence structures, and play with figures of speech.
In short, we should be willing to "push language around . . . to see what will happen." After all, if we can find many ways of saying basically the same thing, one or two of those ways might just turn out to be brilliant.