Occultatio: Burritos, bandits and bit of banter

According to Cicero there are three types of speeches, deliberative (to persuade an audience), judicial (to present a case in a debate or argument), and epideictic (to give a ceremonial speech). Each type of speech has its own purpose, and each has its own secret weapons.

This post is going to focus on one of those weapons: occultatio. Occultatio is the rhetorical equivalent of sticking your nose in the air whilst slapping your opponent in the face with a leather glove. It’s sneaky, it’s sly, and we all love it!

Occultatio is mostly used in judicial speech. You are probably asking yourself; when do we actually encounter judicial speech? Well, we encounter it all the time! We encounter it the obvious places like political chambers and law courts, however, we also encounter in pubs, in cafés and in those intimate arguments we have with our friends, families and loved ones. Of course, when you’re having a row with your partner you are not standing there giving speeches to each other (unless you’re into that sort of thing), however, you are probably still using judicial rhetoric. Things like, for example, occultatio.

Occultatio is the subtle art of saying something by saying that you are not going to say it or just pretending that it is a minor detail. For example…

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we are here because Thomas is on trial for having eaten Emma’s burrito. A terrible and unspeakable crime. I am not going to talk about Thomas’ past food-theft offences or the ‘hummusgate incident’ of 2011, but rather get straight to the matter at hand.”

Of course, by having said that you are ‘not going to talk about Thomas’ past food-theft offences’ you have mentioned Thomas’ past food-theft offences. This is occultatio.

So why is it effective? It is effective because it tarnishes the opponent’s reputation and implies guilt by attacking their ethos. If we know that Thomas has a history of stealing food, it makes him a stronger suspect from having stolen Emma’s burrito. As well as this, occultatio allows a speaker to attack an opponent without seeming too aggressive. Openly accusing people can seem hostile, however, making a minor remark that implies guilt is less hostile and often more effective.

On a more serious note, occultatio often comes up in law courts as a way of highlighting a suspect’s suspiciousness. For example: ‘I am not going to talk about Mr Cheater’s previous relationship with Madame P’ or ‘I shan’t mention the time that David forgot his child in the pub’.

All these examples have so far been about proving someone’s guilt to a third party. However, occultatio can also be used to guilt trip the individual you are saying it to. For example, were you to witness a lover’s quarrel you might hear something like…

“I don’t believe that you care about me or my feelings! You never come to yoga with me, you say that my friends are boring and I’m not even going to mention that time I saw you making eyes with the neighbour!”

Or on a light-hearted note…

“Dan, you’re a good friend, but I’m not going to mention that time you made me a bacon sandwich because you ‘forgot’ I was a vegan”

As you can see, occultatio can be brutal. However, it can also be used for jokes – I’m not even going to mention its role in those embarrassing best man speeches…

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