Allusions, playful variations, snowclones, themes, subjects, memes, tropes, genres

I recently posted (for the second time, on April 29th, here with reference to restrictive vs. non-restrictive modification  in a letter to the editor in the NYT) on the playful allusion “A comma, doctor!” (understood continuation: “We need a comma!”). The target of the allusion is a famous Doonesbury comic strip from 1980, with a reporter calling out to Ted Kennedy as the senator wandered through sentences in a press conference: “A verb, Senator, we need a verb!”.

My previous “We need a comma!” posting was from 11/21/10, having to do with high vs. low modification in a New Scientist story.

I’d hoped to find other occurrences of allusions to the Doonesbury quote, of the IN NEED form:

a(n) X, ADDRESS-TERM, we need a(n) X!

(in full, or with only the first part, the second part being understood), but such searches are very difficult to carry out, since they pull up so much irrelevant stuff. So for the moment my uses are just occasional playful variations on the Doonesbury line.

(I haven’t been able to find a usable copy of the Doonesbury strip, despite its fame.)

The Doonesbury original does take us in several directions. If we found more IN NEED examples, then the issue is when we leave the world of playful allusions and enter the snowclone world, a topic I’ve looked at repeatedly on Language Log.

Even when we’re still in the world of playful allusions, there are questions about what to call the examples (my playful allusion is certainly not standard; some would prefer meme or trope).

So far, the examples have been verbal, though a visual dimension (not always crucial) is sometimes supplied by the context of a comic strip. For a combination of visual and verbal material, some writers have used the label theme, subject, trope, or genre, and sometimes they make distinctions among these — a topic for a later posting.

Back on Doonesbury, the Kennedy strip got some coverage by the Language Loggers, having to do with incoherence in political discourse. In particular, a piece “Blurt and babble” by Geoff Pullum on 11/18/08, with these comments:

I cringe when I hear Democrats floundering to [the extent of Sarah Palin] too. Ted Kennedy has on occasion attained a degree of incoherence comparable to that of the Palin quote above [AMZ: I spare you this quote] (remember the classic Doonesbury strip [from 1980]: A verb, Senator, we need a verb!). I just think it means these people are underqualified for public life (albeit perhaps not vitiatingly so), and pointing that out is a legitimate criticism of a candidate’s ability to do the job, just like presenting evidence of the candidate’s venality or dishonesty would be.

And Mark Liberman on “Disfluency gap” on 3/22/10:

[though] George W. Bush certainly took his share of (in my opinion) unfair criticism on this issue [disfluency], I should point out that Howie Carr’s long-running Wizard of Uhs feature was focused on Ted Kennedy.

In the next posting: gag cartoons, tropes, and memes.

2 Responses to “Allusions, playful variations, snowclones, themes, subjects, memes, tropes, genres”

  1. Randy Alexander Says:

    A bit pixelated but it’s clear enough for me to read.


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