March 28, 2006

The ludic impulses of science writers

I've noted before that in certain domains writers are inclined towards all kinds of playing with language: in advertising, headlines for feature stories, and titles of porn flicks (mentioned here), and also generally in science writing for a popular audience (mentioned here), among other places.  In those postings from last October, I focused on playful variations on formulaic language, but formulaic language often appears "straight" (though in such a way as to call attention to itself), and there's a lot of phonological playfulness -- rhyme, alliteration, assonance, transposition, etc.

In the April 2006 Scientific American, an article by George Musser starts out (on p. 18) with a bang: a self-conscious bit of formulaic language in the head, and then a wonderful phonological transposition in the second sentence (which is followed by a pretty good metaphor).

The head:

The Check Is in the Mail

This is a kind of quotation, of one of three Dubious Reassurances in a joke.  (In the version I know best, it's the only one that's not sexual in content.  Instead, it's about money.)  As the subhead makes clear, the story is about sending money, though not by checks in the mail (so the quotation calls attention to itself):

Does the money migrants send home do any good?

On to the text:

If there is any political issue that could use a dose of scientific rigor, it is migration.  U.S. immigration policy is widely regarded as a total mess, the European melting pot produces pelting mobs, and all over the world tall fences have been constructed to keep facts from entering the debate.

As a sometime student of speech errors, I really appreciated the Spooneristic "melting pot... pelting mobs".  As a sometime student of imperfect rhymes and imperfect puns, I appreciated the phonological transposition even more: not the simple "melting pot... pelting Mott (/mat/)" (which would of course make no sense in this context), but the imperfect transposition in "mobs" /mabz/.  Cute.

Then comes the reference to tall fences being erected, which at first we're likely to take to be about the literal tall fences going up along various borders -- surely they're being alluded to -- but then turns out to be (metaphorically) about barriers excluding information.

Well, the whole performance gave me a moment of pleasure.  Maybe I'm just easily entertained.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 28, 2006 02:34 PM