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Rhetoric, sweet rhetoric!

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GIVE me a dollar every time a politician shouts, ``That's just a lot of rhetoric!'' and I'll have a million dollars stacked up around my house. I'll bet that million dollars I won in the first paragraph that any speaker who says, ``That's just a lot of rhetoric,'' doesn't know what he's talking about. Politicians refer to rhetoric as if it were an exotic language like Swahili or pig Latin.

A little over 2,000 years ago some politicians were roaming around Greece shouting, ``That's a lot of rhetoric,'' or some such nonsense, when Aristotle finally got around to recording what has remained the most useful definition of rhetoric available even today.

Aristotle defined rhetoric as the search for all of the available means of persuasion. Between Aristotle and the 1980s, however, someone decided persuasion was a negative word; and therefore, because of the company it keeps, rhetoric shares the same unsavory reputation.

So when the politician shouts, ``That's just a lot of rhetoric,'' I'm wont to shout back, ``What's wrong with attempting to persuade?''

Certainly nothing is wrong with persuasion. Presidents and ministers use it, saleswomen and admen use it, lovers and editorialists use it. And, I'm sure readers use it, too. The problem remains one of use.

It's a sly innuendo - ``rhetoric.'' It's a poke in the ribs - ``Ah, a little indiscretion.'' The word is spoken as if it's naughty, which gives rhetoric a pejorative connotation. That's a fate not deserved by an honorable word.

Dictionary writers record the common usage of words. The editors of the American Heritage Dictionary record that American speakers use rhetoric to mean ``unsupported or inflated discourse or affectation or exaggeration.'' It is this common, low use of rhetoric that too many politicians claim.

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