For most of its 2500 year history, the Hellenistic word rhetoric has had a stable definition: the study or practice of persuasive and effective communication through speech or writing. However, beginning with Kenneth Burke, Richard Weaver, and I.A. Richards in the early twentieth century, the definition of rhetoric began to take on nuances it had previously lacked. Rhetorical theory began to concern itself with symbols in general, not just language. It also began to look for “persuasion” where none was expected, in order to chart the countless small ways that people are persuaded to do what they do, believe what they believe, and live how they live. With this expanded notion of what rhetoric was, rhetorical theory began to take on the role of cultural criticism, and indeed, many academic rhetoricians today are allied more closely to cultural studies than to the rhetorical tradition. In a lot of work, the word “rhetoric” seems to mean a million different things, sometimes negative and sometimes positive. All we need to do to see how many different definitions “rhetoric” possesses in the academic world is look at the titles of academic texts. Here are just a few: The Rhetoric of Fiction; Reclaiming the Rural: Essays on Literacy, Rhetoric, and Pedagogy; Rhetoric and Resistance in the Corporate Academy; Nineteenth-Century Rhetoric in North America; Starring the Text: The Place of Rhetoric in Science Studies. It seems as though we have moved beyond the Aristotelian understanding of rhetoric as “a counterpart to dialectic” and “the ability to see the available means of persuasion.”
An interesting way to chart this change in rhetoric’s definition is to use Google’s N-Gram viewer. (Yes, I set smoothing to 0, for better or worse.)
By itself, the word “rhetoric” seems to become more popular after the 1960s, which is precisely when the “rhetorical renaissance” really began to take off in America. We see a change in rhetoric’s definition and a concomitant expansion in the use of the term. But even more telling than this unigram distribution are the other N-grams associated with academic rhetoric. For example, the genitive construction “the rhetoric of” is fairly limited prior to 1960 but noticeably more popular afterward:
Before 1960, I would expect, “the rhetoric of” typically refers to “the rhetoric of Aristotle” or “the rhetoric of Ramus,” that is, it typically surfaces as a subjective genitive referring to the rhetorical theory of a specific person. Today, however, this trigram not only continues to be used as a subjective genitive; it is also frequently deployed as an objective genitive, referring to some person doing rhetorical action. This might account in part for the increased use of the trigram. Also interesting, of late, is the increased use of a plural form of nominal and genitive rhetoric:
“The rhetorics of” is completely unattested prior to the twentieth century; its use undergoes an exponential increase! This says a lot about the expanded definition of the word in 20th century rhetorical theory. Another trigram that appears overnight in the 1960s is “A rhetoric of”, which exhibits a genitive construction coupled with an indefinite article.
Of course, comparing the unigram “rhetoric” to “history” and “philosophy” makes it clear that the expanded interest in rhetoric was still a very limited phenomenon: