Easter egg quotations

[The body of this posting vanished from WordPress on 4/23/19. Below is a summary of its content, without most of the original bells and whistles; when I finished the 4/13/19 posting, I deleted the files of background material for it, and I no longer have the heart to reconstruct it all. (By some software freak, the comments from the original posting were preserved.)

If you’re looking for my posting about Louis Flint Ceci and Magrittean disavowals, that’s “A Ceci disavowal” at:

https://arnoldzwicky.org/2019/04/24/a-ceci-disavowal/ ]

From my 1/25/19 posting “Pythonic curtain line in the Economist”:

The Economist is ridiculously fond of this sort of jokiness, dropping allusions left and right (unattributed of course), to both high and low culture, to idioms, proverbs and sayings, and so on. In the Vaccine X story, the sting is in the tail

— in the very last sentence: “All this may then eliminate the fear, surprise and ruthless efficiency of unexpected viruses”, a quotation from the Monty Python “Spanish Inquisition” sketch.

If you catch the quotation — not every reader will — that doesn’t contribute substantively to your understanding, but it does provide a kind of side pleasure, not unlike that afforded by Easter eggs in video games and the like. So I’ll refer to them as Easter egg quotations.

For the most part, the Economist deploys allusions ostentatiously, as jokes that are meant to be seen as jokes. The Vaccine X allusion to Monty Python, however, can be read straightforwardly and literally, merely asserting that unexpected viruses elicit fear and surprise and are ruthlessly efficient. It could pass by without your noticing. If you recognize the allusion, that’s a bonus, a little gift to you, and you might even feel a bit of pride in your knowledge of culturally significant texts.

Easter eggs. From NOAD:

noun Easter egg: 1 [a] a hard-boiled egg that is dyed and often decorated as part of the Easter celebration. [b] an artificial egg, typically chocolate, given at Easter, especially to children. 2 an unexpected or undocumented feature in a piece of computer software or on a DVD, included as a joke or a bonus.

Sense 2 is a metaphorical development from sense 1a: the software Easter egg is, like the literal Easter egg ‘egg for Easter’ (in a specialized use), pretty; given as a present; and, sometimes, the object of a playful search.

More detail on software Easter eggs from Wikipedia:

In computer software and media, an Easter egg is an intentional inside joke, hidden message or image, or secret feature of a work. It is usually found in a computer program, video game, or DVD/Blu-ray Disc menu screen. The name is used to evoke the idea of a traditional Easter egg hunt. The term was coined to describe a hidden message in the Atari video game Adventure [in 1979] that encouraged the player to find further hidden messages in later games, leading them on a ‘hunt’.

Another Easter egg quotation. A particularly subtle and complex one. Again from the Economist: in the 4/4/19 issue, in a special report, “Synthetic biology: The engineering of living organisms could soon start changing everything”, section 5 “Liberation biology”:

Engineering Organisms

At a “Build-a-Cell” workshop in San Diego this February the assembled researchers noted how hard it was to communicate to the public the remarkable scope of their ambitions: creating genomes and the cells to house them from almost first principles. If you appreciate the conceptual bravura of an organism with no ancestors, or that even discussing such a thing would have seemed insane just 25 years ago, this is staggering. If you do not, such synthetic life seems just to be, well, more life. And life is both already a miracle and the most everyday one. Cell is a cell is a cell.

Cell is a cell is a cell: in the context, it’s an instance of a snowclone (hitherto unnamed) 3X BE snowclone (an X is an X is an X), conveying something like ‘all Xs are alike’ (they aren’t signficantly different from one another); but, without the initial indefinite article, it is also a sly allusion to Gertrude Stein’s “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”.

The Gertrudian Rose and the Gertrudian rose. From Wikipedia:

The sentence “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” was written by Gertrude Stein as part of the 1913 poem “Sacred Emily”, which appeared in the 1922 book Geography and Plays. In that poem, the first “Rose” is the name of a person. Stein later used variations on the sentence in other writings, and “A rose is a rose is a rose” is among her most famous quotations, often interpreted as meaning “things are what they are”, a statement of the law of identity, “A is A”. In Stein’s view, the sentence expresses the fact that simply using the name of a thing already invokes the imagery and emotions associated with it, an idea also intensively discussed in the problem of universals debate where Peter Abelard and others used the rose as an example concept. As the quotation diffused through her own writing, and the culture at large, Stein once remarked, “Now listen! I’m no fool. I know that in daily life we don’t go around saying ‘is a … is a … is a …’ Yes, I’m no fool; but I think that in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.” (Four in America).

The Gertrudian Rose — the person — is likened to a rose, and then in the original quotation this identification is reinforced by repetition, the Gertrudian rose, conveying either that roses are what they are, they can’t be changed; or that all roses are essentially alike, no two are significantly different (the use in the Economist); or else evoking the essences of roseness (perhaps what Stein had in mind).

The second of these Gertrudian roses is the 3X BE snowclone, and its history isn’t very clear.  Assertions of the law of identity — A dog is a dog, Dogs are dogs (or the mock low-class variant Dogs is dogs) — have long been used to convey that Xs are all alike, and such uses have sometimes been reinforced by repetition, 3X identity or 4X identity instead of mere 2X identity. But it’s possible that Gertrude Stein’s later use of the 3X variant popularized it and spread it as a conventional pattern, a snowclone.


4 Responses to “Easter egg quotations”

  1. chrishansenhome Says:

    It’s not only in the articles that the Economist plays with words. I have been a subscriber for years, and I get the daily email summary of articles of interest.

    An article about the various kinds of Sichuan hotpot that vie to be the best and most renowned in China was headlined “The gripes of broth”. Some subeditor must have gotten a bonus for that.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Now in the Economist itself, the 4/13/19 issue, p. 43: head “The gripes of broth”, subhead “Beijing: Two cities tussle over who makes the tastiest Sichuan hotpot”. The editorial staff apparently spends a significant amount of time achieving effects like this. (I posted a while back on an elaborate Proustian two-fer.)

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    So now I feel compelled to contribute two of my favorite “Easter eggs” of this type.

    (1) Quite some years ago, I was watching an adaptation of one of Agatha Christie’s “Miss Marple” mysteries, whose opening scene took place in a busy hotel lobby; at one point the rather harried desk clerk said into a telephone: “Miss Otis regrets she’s unable to lunch today, Madam.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miss_Otis_Regrets)

    (2) Many more years ago, an episode of the US television drama Lou Grant, whose title character was editor-in-chief of a Los Angeles newspaper, involved the question of whether to publish a comic strip that made a political point by way of a perhaps-too-realistic representation of a US Senator. In the middle of this came a single mention of the cartoonist’s surname, which was “Diefenbaker” — a joke that required the knowledge that the plot was in some way inspired by the real-life comic strip Doonesbury, whose author, Gary Trudeau, shares a surname with a former Prime Minister of Canada, and also that Diefenbaker was the name of an earlier Prime Minister of Canada. It was a throwaway line, and I sometimes wonder if I was the only viewer of the show to catch it.

    (Yes, I know that the present PM is also named Trudeau, but this was years ago, and to tell the truth I’m not sure whether or not Pierre Elliott Trudeau was still PM at the time that the episode was broadcast.)

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