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Zeugma Avoidance -- a Canon of Construction:

Rereading D.C. v. Heller, I was struck by the following passage (one paragraph break added):

The phrase "bear Arms" also had at the time of the founding an idiomatic meaning that was significantly different from its natural meaning: "to serve as a soldier, do military service, fight" or "to wage war." ....

[But] the meaning of "bear arms" that petitioners and Justice Stevens propose is not even the (sometimes) idiomatic meaning. Rather, they manufacture a hybrid definition, whereby "bear arms" connotes the actual carrying of arms (and therefore is not really an idiom) but only in the service of an organized militia. No dictionary has ever adopted that definition, and we have been apprised of no source that indicates that it carried that meaning at the time of the founding. But it is easy to see why petitioners and the dissent are driven to the hybrid definition. Giving "bear Arms" its idiomatic meaning would cause the protected right to consist of the right to be a soldier or to wage war--an absurdity that no commentator has ever endorsed.

Worse still, the phrase "keep and bear Arms" would be incoherent. The word "Arms" would have two different meanings at once: "weapons" (as the object of "keep") and (as the object of "bear") one-half of an idiom. It would be rather like saying "He filled and kicked the bucket" to mean "He filled the bucket and died." Grotesque.

That there's a zeugma you're talking about, Mr. Justice: "the use of a word to modify or govern two or more words when it is appropriate to only one of them or is appropriate to each but in a different way, as in to wage war and peace or On his fishing trip, he caught three trout and a cold." Why didn't you just say so?

I should note that the word "zeugma" appears in Westlaw's Allcases database 20 times -- all of them either in the name Zeugma Corp. or the title of Libert H. Boeynaems, Bishop of Zeugma (and, yes, there is likely a connection to the word, but rather remote).

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. My Favorite Zeugma:
  2. Blegging for Zeugmas:
  3. Zeugma Avoidance -- a Canon of Construction:
21 Comments

Blegging for Zeugmas:

I'm giving a talk Monday where the topic of zeugma avoidance is going to come up. I'd like to give a familiar quote -- preferably from a famous song, play, novel, or movie -- that contains a zeugma, which is to say "The use of a word to modify or govern two or more words when it is ... appropriate to each but in a different way, as in to wage war and peace or On his fishing trip, he caught three trout and a cold."

As you might gather from my question, custom-made examples such as the ones in this quote don't satisfy me; I want something that's already relatively well-known. The only such example I could find in a quick Google search was "You held your breath and the door for me" from Alanis Morissette's Head Over Feet, but I'm looking for something even better known (or at least even cooler). So if you could pass some along, I'd be much obliged. Thanks!

98 Comments

My Favorite Zeugma:

Thanks to commenter Dan Simon, who reminded me of this zeugma, from the famous English radical (and hero to the American revolutionaries) John Wilkes. The Earl of Sandwich apparently exclaimed to Wilkes something like, "I don't know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox" (the "pox" referring to syphilis). Wilkes then replied,

That depends on whether I embrace your Lordship's principles or your mistress.

The quote is often attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, but the source I cite above is from 1839, when Disraeli was just beginning his political career; if the statement had indeed been from Disraeli rather than Wilkes, it seems unlikely that an 1839 source would label it as being Wilkes's.

23 Comments