Death trap

The 5/27 Wayno/Piraro Bizarro collabo brings us two Grim Reapers confronting what might be a trap for them:

(#1) (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 2 in this strip — see this Page.)

If you want to catch Death in a trap, what do you use as bait? Obviously, not the conventional chunk of cheese, but dead cheese: moldy cheese. (Moldy cheese is, of course, not actually dead; in fact, the cheese is alive with the swarms of microbes.)

The cartoon nicely exploits an ambiguity, between the semantics of the conventionalized compound death trap / deathtrap, and the semantics of a compound Death trap, parallel to mouse trap / mousetrap.

Food and medicine background. From the Mayo Clinic site, on “If cheese has mold growing on it, should I throw it away?”:

(#2) A moldy chunk of hard cheese

Soft cheeses, such as cottage cheese, cream cheese and ricotta, with mold should be discarded. The same goes for any kind of cheese that’s shredded, crumbled or sliced.

With these cheeses, the mold can send threads throughout the cheese — contaminating more than you see. In addition, harmful bacteria, such as listeria, brucella, salmonella and E. coli, can grow along with the mold.

Mold generally can’t penetrate far into hard and semisoft cheeses, such as cheddar, colby, Parmesan and Swiss. So you can cut away the moldy part and eat the rest of the cheese. Cut off at least 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) around and below the moldy spot. Be sure to keep the knife out of the mold, so it doesn’t contaminate other parts of the cheese.

Of course, not all molds pose a risk. Some types of mold are used to make cheeses, such as Brie and Camembert. These molds are safe for healthy adults to eat. However, these cheeses, as well as other soft cheeses and cheeses made with unpasteurized milk, are best avoided by people with weakened immune systems, older adults, pregnant women, infants and young children.

Practical note on mouse/rat traps. In the February animal crisis, when the winter drought — we had not one drop of rain in February, normally the height of rainy season — set in, the roof rats came down from their aerial nests in foliage, and tried to follow the scent of food into my house (they turned up begging at my window, quite literally), so we set out traps. The advice was to use, not the folkloric chunk of cheese, but peanut butter, especially very cheap commercial peanut butter (which has a lot of attractive sugars in it). That was spectacularly successful.

The compounds. Two noun-noun compounds contribute to the joke in #1: the obvious death trap, and also — look at the drawing — mousetrap.

From NOAD:

noun death trap (also deathtrap): a place, structure, or vehicle that is potentially dangerous: the theaters were often death traps.

noun mousetrap: a trap for catching and usually killing mice, especially one with a spring bar which snaps down on to the mouse when it touches a piece of cheese or other bait attached to the mechanism.

Take mousetrap first, because it’s the easier case. The compound is subsective: a mousetrap is in fact a kind of trap, indeed a trap in sense 1a from this NOAD entry:

noun trap: 1 [a] a device or enclosure designed to catch and retain animals, typically by allowing entry but not exit or by catching hold of a part of the body. [b] the compartment from which a greyhound is released at the start of a race. 2 [a] a situation in which people lie in wait to make a surprise attack: we were fed false information by a double agent and walked straight into a trap. [b] a trick by which someone is misled into acting contrary to their interests or intentions: by keeping quiet I was walking into a trap. [c] an unpleasant situation from which it is hard to escape: they fell into the trap of relying too little on equity financing.

So a mousetrap is a trap (sense 1a) for mice. But a death trap isn’t, in ordinary usage, a trap for death. It’s not even exactly a trap, though sense 2c above [which is already metaphorical] comes close. What’s crucial for death trap situations is the peril of death.

The compound as a whole is then highly conventionalized and not easily classified with the usual categories for types of compounds.

But the death trap in #1 is in fact a Death trap, entirely parallel to a mousetrap: it’s a trap (sense 1a) designed to trap Deaths (Grim Reapers) via the use of suitable bait (moldy cheese).

Stage and film. With conventionalized deathtrap. From Wikipedia:

(#2) A poster for the movie

Deathtrap is a play written by Ira Levin in 1978 with many plot twists and which references itself as a play within a play. It is in two acts with one set and five characters. It holds the record for the longest-running comedy-thriller on Broadway

… It was adapted into a film starring Christopher Reeve, Michael Caine, and Dyan Cannon in 1982


One Response to “Death trap”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    We have a recurring mouse problem here in Gloucester, and John puts out traps which he baits with peanut butter. Sometimes they successfully trap mice, but more often they serve, as he puts it, as mouse-feeding stations.

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