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Wednesday, November 21, 2012


            Rhetoric is the art of effective communication, with rules and principles to be followed by writers or speakers striving for eloquence in language. Rhetoric first appears in English in 1300, from the Anglo-Norman rhetorik, taken from the Old French, rethorique, the Latin rhetorice, and finally from the Greek rhetoriketechne, or "art of an orator."  This can be traced back further to the Proto-Indo-European wre-tor, “that which is spoken,” and the base were, “to speak.” Other words formed from this initial P.I.E. root include verb, name, vow, and the word “word” itself.

            Rhetoric originally developed as a discipline in Athens in the fourth-century B.C.E., where the ability to speak was essential for anyone who wished to participate in public life. The values associated with the skill of persuasive language carried on into the Roman Republic.  The five canons of rhetoric used to compose a speech were first codified in Classical Rome and included inventio (discovery of argument), dispositio (arrangement), elecutio (expression), memoria (memory) and pronuntiatio (delivery).  Along with grammar and logic, rhetoric is one of the three ancient arts of discourse.  Classical rhetoric appeals to both logic and emotion by design, and the study of rhetoric strives to to improve the facility of those who attempt to inform, motivate, or influence audiences in a specific way.  Central to this skill is the manipulation of modes of expression, such as gestures, looks, or actions, figures of speech and other compositional techniques.  From ancient Greece to the late 19th century, it was a central part of Western education, until it was replaced by the study of literature.  During the Romantic Period, the study of rhetoric fell into decline as emphasis shifted towards the creative freedom of individual expression that was not reflected in the rote learning of examples that had become standard practice in most Western schools.  The noun rhetoric is often used to describe artificial language without meaning or content, and criticism of rhetoric is as old as the art itself. Rhetoric is language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect, which also implies possible perversion of justice or integrity that can lead to corruption.  This leads to negative connotations where someone’s speech may be regarded as, “nothing but empty rhetoric,” or a speech that becomes so obsessed with the perfection and manipulation of the prose that the content seems too far removed.   

            Today rhetoric has grown to have a variety of different meanings. Depending on the tone, rhetoric can mean the specific language essential to understanding or associated with the discourse of a subject, undue use of exaggeration or ornamentation in speech or writing, the study of, or ability to use, effective language, or the art of prose in general (as opposed to verse). Scholars continue to debate the scope of rhetoric since ancient times, with some limiting rhetoric to the specific realm of political discourse, while others challenging that the ability to express convincing arguments and communicate effectively applies to every aspect of human culture.


Dictionary.com, s.v. “Rhetoric, n.,” accessed November 11, 2012,

Online Etymology Dictionary, s.v. “Rhetoric, n.,” accessed November 11, 2012,

OED, s.v. “Rhetoric, n.,” accessed November 11, 2012,

The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory, s.v. “Rhetoric.”

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