March 07, 2006

The agenbite of Onion wit

On 2/27/2006, The Onion mock-quoted Howard Dean:

"Some rising stars with leadership potential like [Sen. Barack] Obama (D-IL) and [New York State Attorney General Eliot] Spitzer have emerged, but don't worry: We've still got some infight left in us," Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said. "Over the last decade, we've found a reliably losing formula, and we're sticking with it." [emphasis added]

This isn't the first time that infight has been substituted for fight in an idiomatic phrase: The New Yorker ran a 5/3/2004 interview about information-hoarding among U.S. intelligence agencies under the headline "Fighting the Good Infight". However, this technique of subversive substitution is a staple of Onion humor. The same Onion article attributes another example to Ted Kennedy:

"Don't lose faithlessness, Democrats," Kennedy said. "The next election is ours to lose. To those who say we can't, I say: Remember Michael Dukakis. Remember Al Gore. Remember John Kerry." [emphasis added]

And on today's online Onion front page is the headline "Kennedy Center To Dishonor Gilbert Gottfried".

Most Onion humor seems to be based on ironic displacement at one level or another. Another 2/27/2006 story, "Rotation Of Earth Plunges Entire North American Continent Into Darkness", starts with the familiar journalistic genre of disaster stories, and substitutes the concept of sunset and the normal social facts of night for the precipitating event. This is one of several standard Onionish ways to insert a mundane event or situation into the framework of a newspaper story presupposing a certain level of importance. An especially common method is to present quirky but banal interviews with stereotypical ordinary people: "Local Teen 'Definitely' Going To Burning Man Next Year", "Area Woman To Celebrate Quiet Women's History Month At Home This Year"; "Vegetarian Can't Bring Self To Eat IHOP's Funny Face Pancakes". A slightly different type of alliaceous displacement is to swap deprecated individuals or groups into heroic frames from popular culture, as in "Modern-Day John Henry Dies Trying To Out-Spreadsheet Excel 11.0" or "Bob Marley Rises From Grave To Free Frat Boys From Bonds Of Oppression". Among the Onion's many other translocative techniques are the substitution of political news into the genre of music reviews, as in "Latest Bin Laden Tape For Completists Only", or into a family ("Bush Hides U.S. Report Card In Sock Drawer") or personal context ("NASA Completely Forgot Probe Was Returning Today").

In the infight, faithlessness and dishonor examples, the displacement is more concrete and smaller in scale: one of the words in an idiomatic phrase is replaced with a morphologically related alternative. With the key word removed, the phrase may not be salient enough to work as a snowclone. Certainly "Don't lose X" is pretty thin as a generalization of "Don't lose faith". But substituting the related item faithlessness succeeds in evoking -- and subverting -- the original. The resulting semi-snowclone is not funny in itself, but it reinforces the article's overall theme that today's Democrats, against the odds, are likely to blow the opportunity handed to them by the incompetence and venality of their opponents.

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 7, 2006 09:21 AM