skotison (rhetoric)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

"[T]the rhetoric of terrorism," Matthew Gumpert says, "represents a particularly cynical form of rhetoric, one less committed to truth than its obfuscation" ( The End of Meaning: Studies in Catastrophe, 2012). (PW Illustration/Getty Images)


The term skotison refers to intentionally obscure speech or writing, usually designed to confuse an audience rather than clarify an issue. Also called noema, schematismus, obfuscation, and the bugbear style. Contrast with plain English

"[R]hetors sometimes deliberately obfuscate or mislead," says Sharon Crowley, "and sometimes they foment or intensify disagreement. This fact does not undermine the usefulness of rhetoric itself, however" (Toward a Civil Discourse: Rhetoric and Fundamentalism, 2006).

The term skotison (from the Greek for "darken") was reintroduced by Richard Lanham in A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms (1991). 

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations:

  • "The great Roman rhetorician Quintilian tells of a rhetoric teacher who taught his pupils to make everything they said intentionally obscure. Skotison!, he would tell them in Greek: Darken it! Successful obscurity elicited this praise from the teacher: 'So much the better: even I could not understand it!' A later Latin writer, Ausonius, confessed to a similar relish for obscurity: 'I might tell thee outright; but for more pleasure I will talk in mazes and with speech drawn out get full enjoyment." And, in the eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson wrote in an essay (Idler, 36) of the same delight in intentional obscurity."
    (Richard Lanham, Revising Prose, 5th ed.. Parson, 2007) 

  • Samuel Johnson on the Bugbear Style
    "There is a mode of style for which I know not that the masters of oratory have yet found a name; a style by which the most evident truths are so obscured that they can no longer be perceived, and the most familiar propositions so disguised that they cannot be known. Every other kind of eloquence is the dress of sense, but this is the mask, by which a true master of his art will so effectually conceal it, that a man will as easily mistake his own positions if he meets them thus transformed, as he may pass in a masquerade his nearest acquaintance. This style may be called the 'terrifick,' for its chief intention is to terrify and amaze; it may be termed the 'repulsive,' for its natural effect is to drive away the reader or it may be distinguished, in plain English, by the denomination of the 'bugbear style,' for it has more terror than danger, and will appear less formidable, as it is more nearly approached."
    (Samuel Johnson, The Idler, No. 36, December 23, 1758)

  • Five Functions of Skotison
    "Skotison serves five distinct functions. The first of these is illustrated by occultists and scientists who project that they have a special and unique relationship with Truth and a sacred kind of knowledge that laypeople do not have. This relationship and knowledge can only be expressed through the turgid language of expertise . . ..

    "Secondly, skotison is used to build a tribe. . . . Because esoteric language is acclaimed as Truth, scientists gather about themselves adherents; laypeople who have faith in men in white lab coats even if they do not understand what the modern oracles are saying. . . .

    "Thirdly and closely related, skotison serves the function of separating authoritative author from powerless audience. . . .

    "Fourth, as [Joshua] Gunn argues [in Modern Occult Rhetoric, 2011], the obfuscation of truth reflects what believers perceive to be the difficulty and majesty of understanding something so vast it is largely beyond human consciousness and human language. . . .

    "Lastly, skotison functions as an inside joke. Those people who know the lingo get the joke."
    (Greg Goodale, The Rhetorical Invention of Man: A History of Distinguishing Humans From Other Animals. Lexington Books, 2015)

  • Defense and Homeland Security
    "What . . . are we to make of the 1947 reorganization that eliminated the U.S. Department of War and created the Department of Defense? To some, the renaming may imply the correction of a previous misnomer or the clarification of peaceful intent in a new nuclear age; to others it might seem to be an obfuscation of militaristic tendencies as deceptive as [George] Orwell's Ministry of Peace. . . . On what grounds would we decide whether the name Homeland Security is a step toward clarity or obfuscation?"
    (Edwin L. Battistella, Bad Language: Are Some Words Better Than Others? Oxford University Press, 2005)
  • The Lighter Side of Skotison: Testimony of New York Yankees Manager Casey Stengel (1958)
    Casey Stengel: I think the public is taken care of, rich and poor, better at the present time than years ago. I really think that the ownership is a question of ability. I really think that the business manager is a question of ability. Some of these men are supposed to be very brilliant in their line of work, and some of them are not so brilliant, so that they have quite a bit of trouble with it when you run an operation of a club in which the ownership maybe doesn't run the club. I would say that the players themselves—I told you, I am not in on that fund. It is a good thing. I say I should have been, to tell you the truth. But I think it is a great thing about that fund. . . .

    There are sixteen men in baseball who own ball clubs. We will say that an individual can hardly make it any more unless he is wealthy. That is how it has grown. I would say the biggest thing in baseball at the present time now, and with the money that is coming in, and so forth, and with the annuity fund for the players, you can't allow the commissioner to just take everything sitting there, and take everything insofar as money is concerned, but I think he should have full jurisdiction over the player and player's habits, and the way the umpires and ball clubs should conduct their business in the daytime and right on up tight up here.

    Senator Kefauver: Thank you very much, Mr. Stengel. We appreciate your presence here. Mr. Mantle, do you have any observations with reference to the applicability of the antitrust laws to baseball?

    Mickey Mantle: My views are about the same as Casey's.

    (Casey Stengel and Mickey Mantle, testimony on July 8, 1958 at the Senate Anti-Trust and Monopoly Subcommittee Hearing)


    Pronunciation: SKO-ti-son