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What our lawyers won't let us say

An ad glimpsed on Taxi TV demonstrates a rhetorical trick for saying things you 'can't' say.

I so rarely watch television nowadays that I have to be careful not to embarrass myself by getting transfixed before a flickering screen when I see one in someone's home or a public place. So I wasn't going to say anything about a TV monitor in back of my taxi on a recent trip to New York.

But two days later, there it was on the front page of The New York Times: "Taxi TV, Brisk As the Traffic You're Stuck In."

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So it's officially news. The Times says that it's expected that by March, "all 13,000 of the city's medallion cabs will be equipped with monitors that allow credit card payments, a global-positioning feature tracking the trip on an electronic map, and television."

And what did I get to watch during the beep-and-creep through Midtown from Penn Station to my hotel? The kind of programming that seems loud even with the sound off, that's what.

One item that caught my ear was an artful example of saying something by saying you can't say it. It was an ad for a particular type of computer whose makers tout it as nearly indestructible – "but our lawyers won't let us say that."

Ah, but the words are out there. So are the images, of people in camouflage or hard hats, dressed for work in challenging environments. They can bring our computers along and they'll hold up fine: That's the message.

The ad even showed a man in a blue suit, obviously intended to be a lawyer, and he uses one of the computers, too. And he's just doing his job, the ad implies, by refusing to let the company make the claims it wants to about its products.

But they're making them anyway!

Hmm. There's a Greek word for this, surely. The vocabulary of rhetoric, and rhetorical devices, comes largely from the Greeks. There's a whole group of devices that are essentially ways of talking about things by not saying them.

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The word I'm looking for here may be paralipsis. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary defines this term thus: "the device of giving emphasis by professing to say little or nothing of a subject, as in not to mention their unpaid debts."

And note – paralipsis doesn't just let you say what you can't say; it emphasizes what you can't say.

Of course, sometimes "not to mention" is just another way of saying "as well as." ("We had cookies and fudge at the party, not to mention snickerdoodles.")

Other times, though, paralipsis goes from the garden variety ("I promise not to complain again about all the noise your kids made every night the last time they spent a week with us") to an advanced form, known as prolepsis: "And I absolutely will never again remind you how by Saturday night, we had the beat cop and the head of the neighborhood association on our front stoop asking what on earth was going on."

Prolepsis can obviously leave one far short of the Monitor standard of "injure no man," so we'd better leave it at that.

Meanwhile, claiming to be constrained by one's lawyers may qualify as a distinct kind of rhetorical device on its own.

A few years ago, a PC World quoted an executive of a well-known Internet service provider on the subject of its new spam-blocking software: "We don't guarantee that it blocks spam 100 percent; our lawyers won't let us say that. But I have not received one piece of spam since I started using it."

It was a well-crafted bit of corporate communication. The man planted the idea of "100 percent blockage," even while explicitly saying he wasn't promising it. He cast himself implicitly as a truth-teller who wants to be straight with the public and chafes just a bit at the flank-protecting maneuvers of the unnamed lawyers. And he supported his statement with evidence from personal experience, however carefully defined.

The Greeks probably had a name for this kind of language, too.


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