This is an odd-looking word, isn’t it? It has a form that you don’t expect, with that cb together (not referring to citizens’ band radio, of course), and it’s not obvious where the stress should go. It’s like a basis with no basis in reality because what is parec, is it like paregoric? I bet a lot of people have trouble with it, except maybe not if not a lot of people have ever used it. But I don’t intend to go fishing here. This word is an odd duck but I don’t mean it’s plunging its bill into the water to pull out odd fish…
Where was I? Oh, right. This word parecbasis. It seems perhaps most akin to parabasis, if you’ve ever seen that word (it’s when the chorus in a Greek drama gets its own turn to address the audience directly), and parabasis has the stress on the antepenultimate syllable (third last), just like anabasis, which is a word for an expedition from the coast into the interior of a country and is the title of the most famous book by Xenophon.
But I digress. If we look in the Oxford English Dictionary (which is probably where you’re looking if you’re even seeing this word, to be honest), we see that the historical citations are… well, as the OED’s note says, “Though the sense is clear, it is interesting that almost all early uses evidenced involve transmission errors.” Transmission errors? Well, it’s just that there’s a 1584 citation that has it as parecuasis, and a 1589 citation that says “Parecnasis, or the Stragler,” and a 1599 that spells it pareonasis, and a 1678 that puts it as parechasis.
But then there’s the 1989 citation from Modern Language Notes (modern! this is ancient Greek, really) that says “It is the absolute of irony, of the parecbasis, the function of the relentless play of language and thought scrutinizing, among other things, their own staging.”
So is parecbasis language scrutinizing its own staging? Are all those other spellings just the word standing in front of its wardrobe mirror trying on outfits before settling on the one it’s gone out in? …I mean, maybe, but really the par is from para, παρα-, ‘beyond’, and the rest is from ἔκβασις, ‘go out, digress’. And the word means not so much self-scrutiny, or trying on different looks, but just wandering off topic. As the 1678 quote says, “a digression, in Rhetorick, it is a wandering in discourse from the intended matter.” To quote a Monty Python sketch, “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so anyway, I said to her, I said, they can’t afford that on what he earns, I mean for a start the feathers get up your nose, I ask you…”
But if you want to know more about something you can always start with Wikipedia, right? This is a rhetorical term (or a term for a rhetorical failure rather than a rhetorical figure), and Wikipedia is replete with articles on rhetoric. And Wikipedia does have an article on Parecbasis. I’ll quote it in full:
Parecbasis is a genus of freshwater fish in the family Characidae. It contains the single species Parecbasis cyclolepis, found in Bolivia, Brazil and Peru.