A bdelygmia (the ‘b’ is silent) is a list of negative qualities about a person, thing or place. It is a form hyperbole – over the top, exaggerating, usually just a little tongue in cheek. It’s a rant, more or less, one that the speaker or author is glad to get off his or her chest; moreover one he or she is positively enjoying.
For students required to produce persuasive or rhetorical writing, practicing a bdelygmia is a useful exercise. Be wary, however: a bdelgmia may look like a spontaneous outpouring of the writer’s thoughts, but you can be sure that the writer is structuring his or her sentences very carefully indeed; if anything, this kind of writing will be more carefully structured than most others.
Parting Shots is full of examples of carefully tailored rants – this is a book, you’ll remember, written by ambassadors at the point at which they are leaving their posting, after several years of tight-lipped diplomacy, formal friendliness and good cheer. Some of the book’s bdelymias are quite restrained, others less so, and some even strike the reader as a little unfair. Most, however, are excellently written. Here is one, inspired by melancholy rather than contempt, that stood out for me (sorry, Finland):
It could be plausibly argued that it is a misfortune for anybody but a Finn to spend three years in Finland, as I have just done. Even the Finns who can afford it are happy to make frequent escapes to sunnier climes. Finland is flat, freezing, and far from the pulsating centres of European life. Nature has done little for her and art not much more. Until yesterday the country was inhabited only by peasants, foresters, fishermen, and a small class of alien rulers who spent most of their money elsewhere. The rich cultural past of Europe has left fewer traces in the shape of public and private buildings of quality and the objects of art which adorn them than anywhere else in the Western world, save perhaps Iceland. Finnish cooking deserves a sentence to itself for its crude horror: only the mushrooms and crayfish merit attention.
(Sir Bernard Ledwidgem, 1972)
The paragraph begins with what seems like a commonplace: that Finland is really only a nice place for Finns; Ledwidge makes the piquant observation in the next sentence, however, that even the Finns get away when they can. Then he launches into some more overt wordplay, starting with the alliterative tricolon: flat, freezing, far. He uses some positive hyperbole about European culture only to lament its absence in Finland. True to the form of the bdelgmia, there is a fair bit of negative exaggeration here, too – by ‘until yesterday’, he really means ‘until the last century or so’, and describing a cuisine as a ‘crude horror’ he really just means it isn’t very appetizing. Actually, apart from the dishes he likes, he doesn’t mention any examples of this ‘crude horror’ – but this very omission is a rhetorical strategy: he leaves it to us to imagine what the food may subsist of. There is, of course, a theme that glues Ledwidge’s obsevations together, the theme of emptiness and absence running through the paragraph: Finland is far away and has nothing worth staying for, is the overriding impression we’re left with.
But Ledwidge’s letter follows a familiar trajectory. He begins with his initial impressions about the country, what annoyed or depressed him about it, before he began to fall for it. He refers back to his earlier slur – that Finns like to leave the country if they can, and tells us that they always come back. He lists the qualities of the Finns and their country, signing off with a sentence that has at least as much rhetorical effect has his earlier bdelygmia. It is a species of ‘periodic sentence’, one that leaves its main verb and subject right at the end, and its theme – in contrast to the earlier focus on absence – is the vastness and richness of the land:
The charm of Finland is difficult to define, but it exists… The broad horizons; the countless islands dotting the Baltic coast; the expanses of nearly empty lake and forest; the ice and snow that prove to be so varied in colour and contour throughout the long winter, all these things make their strong appeal to the Finn; and now they appeal to me too.
Write a bdelygmai on a place you really can’t stand. Use some of the techniques from Ledwidge’s letter. Alternatively, write a piece in praise of a place, in the form of a long periodic sentence. Or even, like Ledwidge, do both!