‘The world will little note,
nor long remember what we say here,
but it can never forget what they did here.’

parison:  An even balance of clauses, syllables, or other elements in a sentence (OED).

The word is not related to comparison; nor, as I once supposed, is it a variant on pari sono.  It is the neuter of the Greek adjective parisos whose meaning is nearly equal. The Gettysburg Address contains eight examples, as was pointed out by the American classicist Charles N Smiley in The Classical Journal of November 1917.  Smiley wondered—as many people have—how Abraham Lincoln, with no classical education and no training in rhetoric, was able to write a speech that has had, for millions of people, a significance to rival sacred scriptures. The 272-word speech has become in itself an historic event; and Lincoln’s use of parison—balance, antithesis and parallel—is notable.

Why is parison so inherent in oratory?  It even appears in the speech that Tacitus attributes to the captured British chieftain Caratacus when he is pleading for mercy from the Emperor Claudius. It is omnipresent: and the reason, one might argue, is that it is not a figure of speech, but actually a figure of thought.  The mental process of balancing, paralleling,  contrasting,  answering like with like and like with unlike is a dialectic so powerful, so compelling and so persuasive that it dictates the words.  A man with the ability of Abraham Lincoln needed no rhetorical training to think and speak in this way.

  • See also The Atlantic magazine, February 2012 (recommended)
  • See Texts menu for a copy of the Gettysburg Address.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *