Rhetoric was borrowed into English from French and Latin in early 14c (first recorded c1330), the earliest of a lexical family of which the adjective rhetorical (1447) is the most significant other member.
The earliest meaning recorded by the OED is defined as ‘The art of using language effectively so as to persuade or influence others, especially the exploitation of figures of speech and other compositional techniques to this end’. Teaching and study are highlighted in the second part of this definition: ‘the study of principles and rules to be followed by a speaker or writer striving for eloquence, esp. as formulated by ancient Greek and Roman writers’; a note points out the important role and status of rhetoric as one of the seven liberal arts, more specifically forming part of the trivium (or lower division) of the liberal arts in the medieval university. Modern work in literary linguistics has highlighted the central importance of rhetoric and of rhetorical figures in the construction of literary style in Renaissance English.
From mid 16c the word is also found denoting language which is deemed to be ‘Eloquent, elegant, or ornate language, esp. speech or writing expressed in terms calculated to persuade’. This OED definition has an important second sentence: ‘Frequently depreciative: language characterized by artificial, insincere, or ostentatious expression; inflated or empty verbiage.’ The depreciative use is frequently activated only by the presence of particular modifiers , leaving open the possibility that not all rhetorical language is artificial, insincere, ostentatious, inflated, or empty. However, a dichotomy of substance and rhetoric is found from at least early 17c, as in Richard Brathwait’s Strappado for the Devil (1615), “Heere is no substance, but a simple peece Of gaudy Rhetoricke”, where the possibility is left open that not all rhetoric is gaudy but the potential of rhetoric as a substitute for any substance at all is nonetheless asserted.
While the core range of meanings of rhetoric has remained relatively stable for centuries, the collocation history of the word, as revealed by diachronic and synchronic corpora, shows very significant shifts in typical usage. Down to the end of 19c, rhetoric typically occurs as an object of the verbs teach or study. It is frequently described as brilliant or splendid, or (depreciatively) as florid or flowery. A disconnect between a rhetorician’s technical skill in persuasion and the objective merits of the case being made is often identified, but this does not necessarily mean that rhetoric is regarded as intrinsically suspect. Indeed, the teaching of the composition of sermons is frequently identified even in late 19c as “sacred rhetoric”.
Already by 19c, however, the adjective rhetorical was showing a slightly different path, heavily coloured outside technical use by its association with the collocation rhetorical question: i.e. a question that is not asked in the expectation of receiving an answer, hence the frequency of modification by adverbs such as purely, merely, entirely, or somewhat. Other frequent collocations today are with flourish, style, or skill, and with strategy, ploy, sleight, device, or trick, while the traditional rhetorical figure has become rather less typical of modern usage.
The typical modifiers of rhetoric itself in contemporary usage are telling, and are overwhelmingly depreciative. It may be lofty or soaring, but also high-flown or overblown; populist; empty or mere; and a striking theme is revealed by the set of modifiers bellicose, belligerent, heated, overheated, fiery, strident, incendiary, or inflammatory, all statistically significant in contemporary usage. In today’s general usage people are frequently described as spouting or spewing (variously modified) varieties of rhetoric; while rhetoric (again typically when modified in various ways) is conceptualized as something that may be employed, deployed, or eschewed.
The conceptualization of rhetoric as something separable from content is not new. Nor is the frequent dichotomy of rhetoric (implicitly or explicitly empty) and content or substance. However, the shift in metaphorization is very striking. Potential for rhetorical splendour or brilliance is put entirely in the shade by conceptualization of rhetoric as on the one hand empty and bombastic, but nonetheless potentially a dangerous weapon, carrying heat and violence. In a significant strain of journalistic usage, politicians or negotiators are described as softening, hardening, toughening, escalating, moderating, or tempering their rhetoric.
This conceptualization is also reflected in another significant strand of contemporary usage, in which variously modified varieties of rhetoric are regarded as carrying polemical content: e.g. nationalist, anti-American, anti-Western, or anti-immigrant rhetoric. Particularly interesting is the frequent collocation anti-imperialist rhetoric, deployed by those who regard themselves as the target of such rhetoric, and in which the identification of such language as rhetoric apparently serves to defuse an otherwise potentially dangerous accusation of imperialism.
Although published only in 1922, the characterization of rhetoric found in William M. Tanner’s Composition and Rhetoric seems separated by a wide gulf from the typical usage of today: “Rhetoric consists of the study of the principles governing the clear, forceful, and elegant expression of thoughts.” Tanner is identified by the title page of the work as “instructor in English in Boston University”, and his preface sets out his aim to make some elements of the long tradition of teaching of rhetoric available to modern school pupils. Most telling of all, however, is the book’s frontispiece, “The Dawn of a New Life, after the painting by Thomas Shields Clark”, an image showing ship-borne immigrants approaching the metropolis of their new homeland. The long tradition in which acquisition of rhetorical skill was explicitly identified as a key part of the educational curriculum seems very distant from the contemporary world.