Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Speaking of Language: Arthur Quinn’s classic rhetoric text ‘Figures of Speech’

By DR. DAVID A. KING, Ph.D. | Published May 12, 2024

Serendipity and synchronicity often lead to the columns I am happiest to write, even if initially I might be resistant to the opportunity. 

Consider this month, for example. An auditor in my Hebrew Scriptures as Literature course loaned me a book several weeks ago. He meant well, and I appreciated the gesture, but because I must read so much material for school, I am highly selective about what I choose to read for pleasure. I’m high maintenance, I’m told. 

I let the book sit for a while. Then I hid it in a bookbag. And then, feeling guilty, I resolved to read the book in one quick sweep, which is what I attempted to do. 

I couldn’t do it. I liked the book too much. I liked it almost immediately. The author’s voice was like that of someone I had known and admired for all my life, except we had just met. The book is Arthur Quinn’s classic 1982 study of rhetoric “Figures of Speech: 60 Ways to Turn a Phrase.” 

I confess I have never reached for a rhetorical text when choosing something to read. As Yeats put it, “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” That’s reason enough for me to avoid rhetoric. Yet Quinn’s book transcends what I expected to be a dull, dry study. It is delightful. I liked it even more when I learned about the life of the writer. 

Over my long experience as a Catholic, I have developed a kind of radar for other Catholics. I can tell when I am in the presence of one. It’s like I detect the presence of native Southerners, or how I sense trouble on a subway car, or know that it’s going to snow in late March. My senses pricked up as I read the book. This man Quinn is a Catholic, I thought. So I did what we do now. I Googled him. 

Quinn is indeed a Catholic. Or was, depending on how you look at it. I’m sorry to say that Arthur Quinn died in 1997, aged only 54. Yet the life he lived, the work he created, and the legacy he left behind are fascinating. Arthur Quinn is someone I wish I could have known, which makes me even more grateful for his book. 

The ‘Ecclesiastes of the West’ 

Arthur Quinn earned his Ph.D. at Princeton and then went back home to California. He took a job at Berkeley, where he taught from 1970-1997. We stereotype Berkeley as a hotbed of outlandish radicalism, a place where it’s not unheard of for people to stroll naked on the campus. The fact is that the school is a prestigious university with quite a lot of sensible people. 

Arthur Quinn was a third generation Californian, born in Marin County in the Bay Area, and a graduate of Marin Catholic High School, where I once served as a teacher for a summer conference for high school Catholic educators. I liked knowing that I had been in a place where Quinn, along with former Poet Laureate Robert Hass, had gone to high school. They would have known each other, I’m certain. 

Quinn was an outstanding baseball player and turned down a contract to play Major League ball in favor of higher education. 

He was a natural academic, a great teacher, and a gifted administrator who reorganized the major in rhetoric and served as Berkeley’s first Director of Writing Programs. A prolific author, he wrote books on a wide range of subjects, from California history to rhetoric; from the Old Testament to British philosophy. Quinn’s books were well reviewed, and Figures of Speech was even chosen as an alternate selection by the Book of the Month Club. 

Nicknamed the “Ecclesiastes of the West,” Quinn was a humanist, a moralist and a Catholic. He died after a long illness, leaving his wife and four children. His funeral Mass took place at St. Mary Magdalen’s Church, Berkeley, and you can bet I plan to visit the next time I am in Northern California. 

Figures of Speech is a wonderful example of the important connection between language, mystery, joy, and faith. How could I not know the book was the work of a Catholic? I literally exclaimed aloud while reading his little book, which I would shelve next to Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style,” or quaint vade mecums like Richard Altick’s “The Scholar Adventurers” and “The Art of Literary Research.” 

Catholics may not always sing, but we have an affinity for language. We know that it matters. We even argue about it, though there’s no negotiating with a liturgist. Most importantly, we know that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” 

We know, too, what Mark Twain meant: “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is like the difference between a lightning bolt and a lightning bug.” Arthur Quinn knew this also, and Arthur Quinn was a great writer. 

How to model clay 

The aim of Figures of Speech is to make 60 turns of phrase enjoyable to the reader so that he might improve his own writing and better understand the writing of others. I knew I was in good hands when I read Quinn’s belief that “learning about the figures of speech should be less like learning about the periodic table of elements than like learning about how to model clay … [for they] reveal to us the apparently limitless plasticity of language.” 

Quinn defines and explains each figure of speech, the names of which are hopelessly convoluted and difficult to remember. Those that I do remember, I can tell you exactly when and where I first learned them. Take synecdoche, for example: substitution of a part for the whole. I learned that in Dr. Mack Smith’s course in modern poetry in 1986. “I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floor of silent seas,” he read from Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” “Tell me the name of that figure of speech, and I’ll give you an A in the course,” Smith said. None of us could, and neither have any of my students across 30 years, for I tell them what Smith told me, and I bet if you asked any of them, they could still define the term for you, having been that close to a given A. 

Quinn uses the Eliot quote as one of his many examples for the figure of speech. Like many of the terms in the book, I guessed that he would use the quotation, and when he did, I laughed aloud. Reading the book became like doing a good crossword puzzle. 

The examples are of course as delightful as Quinn’s own explanations and definitions, which are clever, and funny, and wise. Each term is followed by several literary examples, or by famous quotations from historical figures. Quinn’s two most common sources are Shakespeare and the King James Bible, so the book is like having a grab-bag of beautiful 17th century prose and poetry. It is a joy to see how Quinn places Scripture in the context of other literary masterworks, as if to say that the Bible does not belong solely in a separate room, but should roam free among the other greats. 

As if Quinn knows that we will never be able to remember all the figures, he provides an excellent brief glossary that also serves as an index. He also provides a preface and a conclusion. The conclusion is particularly clever, for he subtly and drily weaves in many of the figures he has just defined and illustrated. I found after reading the book that my own writing and speaking became more attuned to the figures of speech, for all of us use many of these devices all the time, even if we are unaware. And Quinn reassures us that “Finding ourselves at home with language means making appropriate choices, not necessarily unusual ones. Great writing is unusual because it is great, not great because it is unusual.” 

Arthur Quinn’s Figures of Speech is a brilliant and influential book, by a man who seems the epitome of a public scholar at work for the common good. Anyone who needs reassurance that the Academy and the Church can still complement each other, rather than contradict, will find it to be smart, funny, and instructive. I liked it more than any other academic text I’ve read in years. I liked it so much; I’m tempted not to give it back. 

David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of OCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.