Ostentatiously playful allusions

(OPAs, for short.) The contrast is to inconspicuously playful allusions, what I’ve called Easter egg quotations on this blog. With three OPAs from the 4/20/19 Economist, illustrating three levels of closeness between the content of the OPA and the topic of the article: no substantive relationship between the two (the Nock, Nock case), tangential relationship (the Sunset brouhaha case), and tight relationship (the defecate in the woods case).

The three cases also illustrate three degrees of paronomasia: the Nock, Nock case involves a (phonologically) perfect pun; the Sunset brouhaha case an imperfect pun; and the defecate in the woods case no pun at all, but whole-word substitutions.

I’ll start in the middle, with Sunset brouhaha. But first, some background. Which will incorporate flaming saganaki; be prepared.

Background: EEQs and OPAs. From my 4/13/19 posting “Easter egg quotations”

If you catch the quotation [from Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition, about fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency] — 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.

The contrast is between the publication’s usual practice, which is deep in OPAs, and its occasional inconspicuous deployment of quotations as a small gift to appropriately plugged-in readers, in the form of Easter egg quotations, or EEQs (pronounced like eeks) for short.

Digression: the placement of playful allusions. Playful allusions (of both types) are not sprinkled through articles, but occur mostly in just three places of prominence: in the framing of a story, in a head(line); at the beginning of a story (or a substory framed by a title), in its first paragraph; and at the end of a story or substory, in its last paragraph.

Kicker heads. From the Merriam-Webster site:

[noun kicker-1:] a line of newspaper type set above a headline usually in a different typeface and intended to provoke interest in, editorialize about, or provide orientation for the matter in the copy heads [I’ll call them kicker heads.]

The prime location for playful allusions in the Economist. All three of the OPAs featured in this posting are in this position.

On p. 28, Sunset brouhaha, here in all of its glory because of the photo placement, on-line:

(#1) Kicker head + main head (in print: “Worried by declining salaries, Hollywood’s writers sack their agents”) + subhead

On p. 31, Nock, Nock, in print and on-line:

Nock, Nock
Republican state legislatures are overturning ballot initiatives

And on p. 71, defecate in the woods:

Do tapirs defecate in the woods?
[in print] It seems they prefer burned-out scrub. And that may help regenerate forests.
[on-line] They prefer burnt-out scrub. And that may help to regenerate forests

Opening lines. In the lead sentence, or at least in the lead paragraph. From my 4/7/15 posting “Allusion in the Economist”

in a report on Peru: “A jarring defeat: The loneliness of Ollanta Humala”, the story leads with:

To lose one prime minister might be considered a misfortune, but to lose six in less than four years in office, as Peru’s president, Ollanta Humala, has done, must be seen as carelessness.

Referring to losing six prime ministers, and then to these frequent changes of government as carelessness, is preposterous, but then we hear Lady Bracknell’s voice and realize it’s a playful allusion, in fact an ostentatious one.

Closing lines. The EEQ from the Spanish Inquisition sketch came in fact at the very end of the Economist‘s story; my original 1/25/19 report of the example was entitled “Pythonic curtain line in the Economist”. As it happens, there’s now journalist lingo for remarkable curtain lines. Alas, that term is kicker, so there’s an ambiguity avoidance problem (which is why I labeled the earlier use kicker-1 and suggested the usage kicker head). From the Merriam-Webster site again:

Recently, another meaning for kicker has emerged [kicker-2], referring to a surprising or poignant revelation that concludes an article. It’s an example of the inside language of editing and journalism that is used even when intended for a broader readership. [I’ll call them punch-line kickers]

This journalistic use of kicker in a ‘surprise’ sense is just a special case of a wider ‘surprise’ use  recorded in both NOAD:

noun kicker: 2 North American informal an unexpected and often unpleasant discovery or turn of events: the kicker was you couldn’t get a permit.

and AHD5:

noun kicker: 2 Informal a. A sudden, surprising turn of events or ending; a twist.

(neither of which requires that the kick come at the end of something).

[Further kicker notes. AHD5 has another extended sense:

b. A tricky or concealed condition; a pitfall: “The kicker is that the relationship of guide and seeker gets all mixed up with a confusing male-female attachment” (Gail Sheehy)

None of this is (yet) in the OED. And none of these sources has the extended sense ‘ingredient or component that provides the kick to something’, where kick is as in NOAD here:

noun kick: 3 informal [a] [in singular] the sharp stimulant effect of something, especially alcohol. [b] a thrill of pleasurable, often reckless excitement: rich kids turning to crime just for kicks | I get such a kick out of driving a race car.

As in this comment on the Top Secret Recipes‘ “Roy’s Hawaiian Martini”:

(#2) “do be careful of the pineapple. It’s the kicker in the cocktail.”]

Digression on OPA. Further into the weeds. The acronym OPA, pronounced /ópǝ/, evokes two homonyms (and any number of initialistic abbreviations, for example OPA the US Office of Price Administration).

First, there’s German Opa ‘Grandpa’, the counterpart to Oma ‘Grandma’. Affectionate names, as in this folksy company name:

(#3) Opa’s Smoked Meats in Fredericksburg TX: “Traditional German Recipes Since 1947”

Then there’s the (Modern) Greek exclamation Opa! (which I’m very fond of). From Wikipedia:


“Opa!” (Greek: Ώπα) is a common Greek emotional expression. It is frequently used during celebrations such as weddings or traditional dancing. In Greek culture, the expression sometimes accompanies purposeful or accidental plate smashing. It can also be used to express shock or surprise, especially when having just made a mistake. Opa is also used in Italy (similarly to mazel tov in Jewish culture), by some of the South slavic nations, like Serbians, (to express shock or surprise), by Israelis and by Arabs in the Eastern Mediterranean, who sometimes pronounce it as “obah”, especially when picking up or playing with children. In Russian culture it is used during the short phase of concentration on a action, the expectation of successful process during the action and the subsequent completion of it, for example, when throwing a basketball into the basket, getting off the bike or picking up a child. It is used in Russia also in enthusiastic atmosphere and surprising moments. It’s also an expression in Brazilian Portuguese.

The expression was popularized in American culture by the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

And it fits ostentatiously playful allusions very well:

Sunset brouhaha … opa!

But wait! There’s more! Consider the Greek fried cheese dish saganaki. From Wikipedia:

In Greek cuisine, saganaki (Greek σαγανάκι) is any one of a variety of dishes prepared in a small frying pan, the best-known being an appetizer of fried cheese [using a salty Mediterranean cheese].

The dishes are named for the frying pan in which they are prepared, called a saganaki, which is a diminutive of sagani, a frying pan with two handles [cf. paella, similarly named for the pan it is cooked in, which resembles a patella (Lat. ‘kneecap’)]

… The cheese is melted in a small frying pan until it is bubbling and generally served with lemon juice and pepper. It is eaten with bread.

Now the local variant:

(#5) Flaming saganaki in preparation

In many United States and Canadian restaurants, after being fried, the saganaki cheese is flambéed at the table (sometimes with a shout of “opa!”), and the flames then usually extinguished with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. This is called “flaming saganaki” and apparently originated in 1968 at The Parthenon restaurant in Chicago’s Greektown, based on the suggestion of a customer to owner Chris Liakouras.

Back in the mists of time, at some Chicago Linguistic Society event at UICC (Univ. of Illinois at Chicago Circle), Jim McCawley led an expedition to The Parthenon so that we could all experience the original flaming saganaki (and grilled calamari, taramosalata, dolmades, pastitsio, souvlaki, etc. — there were a lot of us, so we passed bits of stuff around; meals with Jim were always tremendous fun.).

The Partenon has a short YouTube clip with flaming saganaki + opa!, but this video from Joe Feta’s Greek Village in St. Catherines ON is better:

(#6) Saganaki cheese on fire! Opa!

Maintenant, revenons à nos moutons:

The three 4/20 OPAs. I’ll start in the middle.

— Sunset brouhaha, shown in #1 above, involves an extremely imperfect phonological relationship (source) boulevard / (pun) brouhaha — the sort of distant pun you can get away with only if the full source expression is very familiar, as Sunset Boulevard is, especially if it’s also visually signaled, as it is by the photo in #1 of Gloria Swanson and William Holden in the movie Sunset Boulevard. (Of course you have to recognize the photo to get the relationship.)

This one is also mid-scale with respect to the relationship between the content of the OPA and the topic of the article. The article is about a pay conflict — loosely, a brouhaha — between Los Angeles movie writers and their agents; and the thoroughfare Sunset Boulevard, which cuts through Hollywood, serves as a common metonym for the L.A. movie industry. See my 3/26/17 posting “On the boulevard of broken dreams with Kip Noll” for its section on Sunset Boulevard. The association between the movies and the boulevard was firmly fixed by the movie. From Wikipedia:

Sunset Boulevard… is a 1950 American film noir directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, and produced and co-written by Charles Brackett. It was named after the thoroughfare with the same name that runs through [Hollywood] and Beverly Hills, California.

The film stars William Holden as Joe Gillis, an unsuccessful screenwriter, and Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, a faded silent-film star who draws him into her fantasy world, where she dreams of making a triumphant return to the screen

A side note: on brouhaha and its variants, see my 4/26/16 posting “Brew-ha-ha”.

Nock, Nock. Phonologically, this one is perfect. The source is the noun knock in knock-knock joke, and the pun has the proper name Nock, both AmE /nak/.

On the other hand, the article is about Republican state legislatures overturning ballot initiatives, out of a distrust for the instincts of the masses, a topic utterly unconnected to knock-knock jokes. The only thing that unites them is the /nak/ of political writer Albert Jay Nock’s name.

About the source expression, from Wikipedia:

(#7) Four knock-knocks from the Language of Desires site’s 100 knock-knock jokes

The knock-knock joke is a question-and-answer joke, typically ending with a pun. Knock-knock jokes are primarily seen as children’s jokes, though there are exceptions.

The scenario is of a person knocking on the front door to a house. The teller of the joke says, “Knock, knock!”; the recipient responds, “Who’s there?” The teller gives a name (such as “Noah”) or a description (such as “Police”) or something that purports to be a name (such as “Needle”). The other person then responds by asking the caller’s surname (“Noah who?” “Police who?” “Needle who?”), to which the joke-teller delivers a pun involving the name (“Noah place I can spend the night?” “Police let me in—it’s cold out here!” “Needle little help with the groceries!”).

And the Economist article featuring Nock:

In his autobiography, “Memoirs of a Superfluous Man”, Albert Jay Nock had this to say about America’s system of self-government: “I could see how ‘democracy’ might do very well in a society of saints and sages led by an Alfred or an Antoninus Pius. Short of that, I was unable to see how it could come to anything but an ochlocracy of mass-men led by a sagacious knave.” Nock was among the first writers to call himself a libertarian and, via William F. Buckley and the National Review, exercised significant influence on American conservatism. Given that the Republican Party, the closest thing to a vehicle for the promotion of conservative ideas, is in the business of gathering votes, the equivocal feelings of some conservatives about the demos are usually kept quiet. Occasionally, though, they break cover.

This is what seems to be happening around the country in state legislatures with Republican majorities.

defecate in the woods. The full kicker head:

Do tapirs defecate in the woods?

This one is no kind of pun, but  a version of the conventional speech-act idiom

Does a bear shit in the woods?

(used to convey assent or affirmation). The formal relationship between source and playful variant is one of lexical and syntactic replacement: words substituting for semantically related words, and syntactic structures altered to fit.

On the other hand, the Economist article is actually about tapirs and their defecatory habits, though the topic is not whether tapirs defecate in the woods — of course they do — but what kind of woods they defecate in (burned-out woods vs. undamaged woods). So the content relationship is certainly tight, but not perfect.

On the speech-act idiom and the family it belongs to, from GDoS:

does a bear shit in the woods? Is the pope (a) Catholic? phr. (also do beavers piss on flat rocks? does a bird have wings? does a chicken have lips? do I know my grandmother? do sheep wear sweaters? has a dog a nose? is the pope a guinea/polack?) [see Maledicta I:1 (Summer 1977) pp.77–82 for discussion of these ‘sarcastic interrogative affirmatives and negatives’] (orig. US) a rhetorical phr. of which the implication is, ‘Don’t ask me stupid questions. Of course… .’ [or: ‘Of course not.’]

Specifically for shitting bears, the example:

1970 G.V. Higgins Friends of Eddie Coyle… ‘Is it going to be hot?’ ‘Does a bear shit in the woods?’ [conveying ‘yes; of course’]

(In principle, any yes-no question whose answer is blazingly obvious could fulfill this function, but a small number of these have become conventionalized; hearers no longer need to work out the implicatures involved in understanding these. The first two listed in the GDoS entry — both providing a positive response — are certainly of this type. I would suggest that Do chickens have lips? has been conventionalized as a negative response. For most of the rest I’m not so sure, and it’s not easy to see how such judgments can be tested.)

Then, a brief note on tapirs, from the Wikipedia entry:

(#8) Illustration from the Economist

A tapir (/ˈteɪpər/ TAY-pər, /ˈteɪpɪər/ TAY-peer or /təˈpɪər/ tə-PEER, /ˈteɪpiːər/ TAY-pee-ər) [AZ: the last is my preferred pronunciation, but I have no idea where I got it from] is a large, herbivorous mammal, similar in shape to a pig, with a short, prehensile nose trunk. Tapirs inhabit jungle and forest regions of South America, Central America, and Southeast Asia. The five extant species of tapirs, all of the family Tapiridae and the genus Tapirus, are the Brazilian tapir, the Malayan tapir, the Baird’s tapir, the kabomani tapir and the mountain tapir. … The closest extant relatives of the tapirs are the other odd-toed ungulates, which include horses, donkeys, zebras and rhinoceroses.

And then from the fascinating Economist article:

An obvious response to deforestation is to plant more trees. But this is no easy task. Sowing the right mix of seeds and ensuring that saplings survive long enough to establish themselves is complicated, time-consuming and expensive. Things can, however, be simplified to some extent by recruiting the local wildlife. And in a South American context, according to a study published in Biotropica by Lucas Paolucci of the Amazon Institute of Environmental Research, in Brazil, that means looking after the local tapirs.

The role of bats and birds in reseeding damaged areas is well known. These flying animals often defecate pips and stones from fruit they have eaten in places distant from where the food were consumed. Much research has therefore been devoted to luring them into damaged areas — sometimes with success. There is a limit, however, to the size of seed that a bat or a bird can carry, and that constrains which plants can be regenerated in this manner.

Lowland tapirs suffer no such constraint. They are the region’s biggest herbivores and swallow lots of large seeds. Dr Paolucci thus wondered to what extent tapirs were transporting seeds from pristine to damaged areas. To try to find out he and a team of colleagues set up a study of tapirs’ defecatory habits. [Details of the experimental set-up omitted here.]

…  Dr Paolucci calculated that tapirs pass an average of 9,822 seeds per hectare per year in degraded rainforest, compared with 2,950 in pristine forest.

The camera-trap data suggested that this might be because the animals preferred to spend time in the burned areas, rather than because they actually preferred to defecate there.

… Why tapirs would gravitate towards disturbed zones is [still] a mystery.

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