Oration vs. Peroration

By Maeve Maddox

The Chicago Manual of Style warns careful writers to avoid confusing the words oration and peroration:

A peroration, strictly speaking, is the conclusion of an oration (speech). Careful writers avoid using peroration to refer to a rousing speech or text.

In its rhetorical sense, a peroration is the concluding part of a speech intended to sum things up and rouse the audience to some action.

He…[concluded] his speech with a peroration whose purpose was to remind the audience that he was among the few Republicans with a plausible shot at occupying the White House.

Toward the end of the speech, King departed from his prepared text for a partly improvised peroration on the theme “I have a dream”…

The expression “a rousing peroration” in the sense of “a fiery speech,” is to be avoided, if for no other reason than it’s a cliché.

In other contexts, however, the word peroration has been used since the 15th century to refer to a whole speech or utterance.

Shakespeare used peroration in 1591 as a synonym for discourse:

Nephew, what means this passionate discourse, 
This peroration with such circumstance? 
For France, ’tis ours; and we will keep it still. –Henry VI, Part II, I.i, 111.

Later writers, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sinclair Lewis, Mark Twain, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, all used peroration to refer to comments other than the concluding part of an oration. In the following example from recent news item, peroration refers to a speech and not to the concluding part of a speech:

When the de Blasios arrived a little after 10, the candidate gave a brief peroration to the gathering outside, which surely numbered more than one hundred.

Certainly it would be an error to speak of “the perorations of Pericles” if what is meant are “the orations of Pericles.” But while the use of peroration as a synonym for speech might be justly considered stilted diction, it’s not an occasion for ridicule. Calling a politician’s whistle stop speech a peroration is no worse than using decimate to mean “to kill an indeterminate number of people” because the word’s “real” meaning is “to kill one in ten.”

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2 Responses to “Oration vs. Peroration”

  • venqax

    Good one again, MM. For me it calls up a broader issue:
    Shakespeare used peroration in 1591 as a synonym for discourse
    OK. But how does that justify anything now? In 1591 WS and everyone else had far fewer words to work with than we do now, and differentiated definitions for words that have become standard now, often for very good reasons, were not necessary or established. IOW, why would Shakespeare’s use of a word to mean something over 400 years ago, be relevant to what the word means now? Or, more precisely, what it might have meant then but does not mean now? Just because a well-regarded writer of the past used a word to mean something then does not mean “we” can still use it to mean that now. And then, moving up the timeline:
    Later writers, …Beecher Stowe, …Lewis, …Twain, …Fitzgerald, all used peroration to refer to comments other than the concluding part of an oration.
    Well, I wouldn’t correct them to their faces, I suppose, but if they were writing today an editor should. Why would someone’s being a great novelist qualify him as an expert on vocabulary, grammar, etc.? OTBE, (and Occam’s Razor) why wouldn’t we assume that the above authors made mistakes. They didn’t really know what peroration meant and used it ignorantly and incorrectly; rather than us thinking that if they used it it must be right. They are privy to some arcane, great-authors-only knowledge of words that only gets dispensed at Skull and Plume conclaves? It seems like an appeal to false authority, really. Off the subject a bit, but just a thought.

    …while the use of peroration as a synonym for speech might be justly considered stilted diction, it’s not an occasion for ridicule.
    Yes it is. Ridicule worthy. Unless you’re one of the Luminaries mentioned we WILL laugh and point fingers at you! LOL

  • Maeve

    Venqax,
    Your comment is too complicated to be responded to in the comments column, but it probably warrants a post. Stay tuned.

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