Dirimens copulatio and LBJ’s War on Poverty Speech


by Peter Watts

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the speech in which President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty.

Listening to a section of it on my car radio this morning, I heard the phrase:

“Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty but to cure it – and above all to prevent it.”

That’s dirimens copulatio, which is the “not only…. but” figure.

Rhetoric is a tangled heap. The past 3000 years have allowed the magic word spells we call rhetorical figures to be defined and re-defined so many times that you often find multiple definitions for the same thing. Dirimens is the ultimate example because 2000 years ago Cicero was already disagreeing with Aristotle about exactly what it was.

I’m going with Cicero’s definition because frankly, it makes more sense. He said that the purpose of dirimens was to amplify a topic, making it seem larger and more striking. Hence the format:

  • We’re not only going to do x, but we’re going to do y as well.
  • Not only do people suffer from x, but they have to suffer y as well.
  • You’ll not only win x, but we’re going to throw in y as well.

Instead of dirimens copulatio, maybe we should call it the game-show figure, because it’s exactly what a game-show host would say to rouse the thrashing zombie-mob in the audience to even wilder applause:

“And tonight, not only will you win this car, but we’ll even throw in a free year of gas”

Next time you’re making a presentation, try a dirimens copulatio. Not only will it emphasise your point, but it’s straight-forward as well.

But be careful how you Google it. It’s surprisingly easy to mis-spell!

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