accismus (rhetoric)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

accismus in rhetoric
"Accismus is . . . a form of irony where one pretends indifference and refuses something while actually wanting it. In Aesop's fable, the fox pretends he doesn't care for the grapes" (Anu Garg, The Dord, the Diglot, and an Avocado or Two, 2007). (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Definition

Accismus is a rhetorical term for coyness: a form of irony in which a person feigns a lack of interest in something that he or she actually desires.

Bryan Garner notes that political candidates "sometimes engage in something like this tactic by declaring that they would really rather be doing something else than being engaged in public life" (Garner's Modern English Usage, 2016).

See Examples and Observations below.

Also see:


Etymology
From the Greek, "coyness"
 

Examples and Observations

  • "We spout figures all the time without knowing it. For instance:

    YOU: Oh, you shouldn't have.

    If you really mean it, that if they give you one more ugly, ill-fitting sweater you'll have to kill them, they you have not used a figure. But if the gift is a new iPad and you can barely keep from running off and playing with it, then your oh-you-shouldn't have constitutes a figure called coyness. Cheapskates who let others pick up the tab tend to use the coyness figure."
    (Jay Heinrichs, Thank You for Arguing, 2nd ed. Three Rivers Press, 2013)
     
  • "My name is Elizabeth Urello. I currently live in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I do not desire to be a writer/actor/comic/playwright/household name/superstar-personality, any more than I desire your good opinion. I do not desperately want more friends, and I am not badly in need of dates."
    ("About Elizabeth," at the blog Accismus)
     
  • Accismus and Courtship in Maya Angelou's Heart of a Woman
    "He raised his voice, 'Bar, give us another one like that other one,' then dropped his voice. 'Tell me, why are you all alone? Have the men gone blind?'

    Although I knew it was an expected move in the courting game, flirting made me uncomfortable. Each coy remark made me feel like a liar. I wiggled on the stool and giggled and said, 'Oh, stop.'

    "Thomas was smooth. He led, I followed; at the proper time he withdrew and I pulled forward; by the end of our introductory ceremony, I had given him my address and accepted an invitation to dinner."
    (Maya Angelou, The Heart of a Woman. Random House, 1981)
     
  • Julius Caesar's Use of Accismus
    ". . . I saw Mark Antony offer him [Julius Caesar] a crown--yet 'twas not a crown neither, 'twas one of these coronets--and as I told you, he put it by once; but, for all that, to my thinking, he would fain have had it. Then he offered it to him again; then he put it by again; but, to my thinking, he was very loath to lay his fingers off it. And then he offered it the third time; he put it the third time by; and still as he refused it, the rabblement hooted and clapped their chapped hands and threw up their sweaty night-caps."
    (Casca in Act 1, scene 2 of Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare)
     
  • Roone Arledge's Use of Accismus to Encourage Howard Cosell's Departure From ABC Sports
    "In the weeks following the Holmes-Cobb [boxing] debacle, rumors persisted that [sportscaster Howard Cosell] would change his mind, under pressure from ABC. But, in contrast to previous years, there was no real pressure. To the contrary, ABC was quite happy to leave him be. Had Cosell chosen to return, the executives would have had to accommodate him, something no one was eager to do now. This being the situation, Roone Arledge [president of ABC Sports] could afford to humor him. Ringing up Cosell one day, he said coyly, 'I understand you're not doing any more professional fights.'

    "When Cosell assented, Arledge, even more coyly, asked, 'You've read your contract recently?'

    "'Yes,' Cosell said, 'and I know I'm in breach of contract, Roone, and I understand that you have every right to dismiss me from the company.'

    "Arledge, biting his lip, assured him, 'Are you crazy? I think you've done the right thing. Congratulations!'

    "Arledge had reason to be complimentary. For him, and all of ABC Sports, the 'right thing' was Cosell so purposefully lifting from them the burden of having to dismiss him."
    (Mark Ribowsky, Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports. W.W. Norton, 2011)

     
  • Demonstrating Humility: The Bishop's Ritual
    "Appointing a bishop is a tricky business. To be a bishop you have to possess the Christian virtue of humility; however, if you actually are humble you'll probably think you're not worthy of being a bishop and turn the job down. Even if you secretly think that you'd make a splendid bishop and would look marvellous in a mitre, you can't just come out and say it. It would look bad. So you had to practise a little bit of accismus by announcing in front of the assembled company of churchmen that you'd really rather not become a bishop, or, in Latin, 'Nolo episcopari.'

    "When you had solemnly announced this, rather than saying 'Oh well, that's that, I suppose,' the church council would ask you a second time, and for a second time you would humbly reply 'Nolo episcopari.' On the third go, you would say, 'Oh all right then, go on,' or 'Volo episcopari' or some such line of assent. You would thus have displayed your humility and got the job.

    "However, it is dreadfully important to keep count, as if you said 'Nolo episcopari' a third time it would be assumed that you really meant it and your chances of promotion would be forever scuppered. It's rather like the Rule of the Bellman described by Lewis Carroll in The Hunting of the Snark: 'What I tell you three times is true.'"
    (Mark Forsyth, Horologicon. Icon Books, 2012)
     
  • A Female Virtue in the Victorian Era
    "The purer the golden vessel, the more readily is it bent: the higher worth of women is sooner lost than that of men. . . .

    "Nature herself has surrounded these delicate souls with an ever-present, in-born guard, with modesty, both in speaking and hearing. A woman requires no figure of eloquence--herself excepted--so often as that of accismus.*

    "* So rhetoricians term the figure by which one speaks, without all longing, of the very objects for which one feels the strongest."
    (Jean Paul, Levana: Or, The Doctrine of Education, 1848)

 

Pronunciation: ak-SIZ-mus