Poetry of Popular Patter
Americans are awash in alliteration.
We are victims of anxious advertising executives and publicity-hungry politicians. Desperate to sell their messages quickly, they repeatedly load their slogans with words whose first sound repeats. They do this crudely and self-consciously, these villains, cheapening a subtly beautiful literary technique.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. June 3, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 03, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 73 words Type of Material: Correction
Alliteration -- In the Column One article about alliteration in Monday’s Section A, the opening words from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel “Lolita” were misquoted. The passage was quoted as: “the tip of the tongue taking a trip three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.” The correct passage is: “the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.”
Scholars of language have long known that people are more likely to remember expressions that employ alliteration. That’s why a beleaguered Bill Clinton called himself “The Comeback Kid” the night he finished second in the 1992 New Hampshire primary. It’s why George W. Bush, trying to appeal to moderate Republicans in 2000, called himself a “compassionate conservative.” It’s why marketing companies label demographic clusters with expressions such as “Blue Blood Estates” and “Pools and Patios.”
Alliteration can be graceful. (“So foul and fair a day I have not seen,” observes Shakespeare’s Macbeth.) It can be audacious. (“Veni, vidi, vici,” proclaimed Julius Caesar.) It can be elegant. (“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins,” began novelist Vladimir Nabokov. “My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.”) It can amplify the emotional power of a great idea. (The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned a day when his children would be judged not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”)
But alliteration, like alcohol, is addictive and easily abused. In a society where consumers are bombarded with more information than ever, the word merchants of politics, advertising and publishing seem to be stacking alliterative words on top of one another like cordwood.
Consider the phrasing that Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, employed several months ago in a speech, when he vowed to create “environmental empowerment zones” and a “toxic task force” to build “a conservation covenant.” More recently, Kerry claimed that the Bush administration’s legacy would be “deficits, debt and doubt.”
The news media routinely use alliterative titles to call attention to a “special report.” TV is filled with titles such as “Terror at the Twin Towers”; “Duty or Disgrace” for the Iraq court-martial hearings; “Fatal Foam” for a story on polyurethane foam; “Costly Connections” for a story about unwanted Internet fees; “Seething Over Sinkholes.” On May 11, the Los Angeles Times had two alliteratively titled series on Page 1: “The Politics of Petroleum” and “Star-Crossed Season,” the latter a look inside the Los Angeles Lakers. Movie titles routinely fall back on alliteration (“Sleepless in Seattle,” “As Good as It Gets,” “Pretty in Pink,” “Mad Max,” “Dumb and Dumber”).
Wait, there’s more. There’s Ford, deciding last year to give most of its new car models names that begin with the letter “F” (Freestyle and Freestar joining Focus and Fiesta), a branding move that was mocked by some marketing experts. There’s Lexus, boasting of being “passionate in the pursuit of perfection.” There’s Bush, branding the medical procedure that opponents call “partial-birth abortion” as “troubling and tragic.” There’s a San Diego County woman naming her Christmas boutique Delightful Designs by Doris. There’s former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, dismissing the Republican focus on social issues as “guns, God and gays.” There’s Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a radio talk-show host, contending that American materialism has left many of us “depressed, disillusioned and ... divorced.” There’s CBS Sports’ insistence on having not only the NCAA “Final Four” but also the “Sweet Sixteen” and the “Elite Eight.”
There’s also Philip Roth making fun of all this three decades ago in “The Great American Novel,” narrated by an 87-year-old sportswriter, Word Smith, so obsessed with alliteration that he routinely strings together scores of alliterative words. Like this:
“Oh what a race we are, fans! What a radiant, raffish, raggedy, rakish, rambunctious, rampaging, ranting, rapacious, rare, rash ... “
What’s bad about those real-world examples is that they often sound as though the creator felt the technique was more important than the message. As the old advertising-agency jibe goes, “Your strategy is showing.”
Michael Waldman, a chief speechwriter for President Clinton, offered a moment from 1998 to illustrate how alliteration should be used. Clinton was rehearsing his State of the Union speech, which included a refusal to use Social Security surpluses on a tax cut. “The line in the draft was: ‘Here’s my answer: Social Security first,’ ” Waldman said. Clinton stopped and suggested saying instead: “I have a simple four-word answer: Save Social Security first.”
The insertion of “simple” and “save” improved what linguist Deborah Tannen calls “the poetics of conversation.”
Tannen, a Georgetown University professor whose most recent book analyzes language between adult family members, says speech works on two levels: meaning and sound.
“The poetics of the meaning level are the metaphors. The poetics of the sound level are the rhythms and the use of repetitions” such as alliteration. Artful poetics on the sound level create “a sense of connection” between the speaker and the listener, Tannen says. “The connection you get when you move together in time. It’s the reason why dancing or marching or singing together has this emotional payoff that makes everybody feel connected; that happens on a very small level when we talk to each other.”
One reason we are overloaded with alliteration is that our attention span is so short. An ad pitch must both describe a product and resonate within two seconds, said Dave Koranda, who teaches advertising at the University of Oregon. So slogans replace complete sentences.
“Within a whole bunch of industries, the amount of sheer advertising has gone up, so it’s harder to break through,” agreed Alan Middleton, an ex-advertising exec and now a marketing professor at York University in Toronto. “The old adage of the ‘50s or ‘60s was: If you don’t have an idea, show the client or the factory. Now it’s: Use a pun or alliteration.”
Don Sunukjian, who teaches preaching at the Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, was so upset by overuse of alliteration in sermons that he wrote an essay a few years ago warning that God’s message was being lost in the din of preachers obsessed with holding their congregations’ attention. Taking a page from a conservative football coach who once warned that three things could happen on a passing play and that two of them were bad, Sunukjian titled his essay: “Four things can happen when you alliterate, and four of them are bad.” Among them: using a word nobody knows, manipulating the meaning of the biblical text and drawing more attention to the speaker’s cleverness than to the word of God.
” ... raucous, raunchy, ravaged, ravenous, realistic, reasonable, rebellious, receptive, reckless, redeemable, refined, reflective, refreshing, regal, regimented ... “
Whose fault is this?
“The fault, dear people,” Republican speechwriter Ken Khachigian says, addressing the news media, “is in yourselves.”
“Reporters are always looking for pull quotes, leads and phraseology that sticks out,” said Khachigian, a chief speechwriter for President Reagan. “So speechwriters quite often look for [alliterative] phrases.... The electronic media have influenced this greatly because alliterative lines tend to be (a) humorous, (b) punchy and (c) memorable” -- just what TV needs.
Alliteration in American politics can both energize and betray a politician who wants to express disdain.
In 1884, Protestant supporters of Republican presidential nominee James G. Blaine set up a dinner to woo Democratic Catholics. But it backfired when a Protestant pastor speaking at the dinner assailed the Democrats as the party of “rum, Romanism and rebellion.” Blaine narrowly lost to Democrat Grover Cleveland.
In 1970, Vice President Spiro Agnew, campaigning for Republican congressional candidates, uttered a string of alliterative accusations against Democrats -- “vicars of vacillation” and “pusillanimous pussyfooters” -- that were simultaneously contemptuous and campy. Agnew’s most famous barb, written the next year by speechwriter William Safire, complained that America had “more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism.” Two years later, a Republican leader branded Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern “the acid, abortion and amnesty” candidate.
Most of that level of ire has migrated to the Internet, where everyday partisans say things such as: The Clintons’ speeches “are sophomoric, shopworn, shallow, specious. Platitudinous pandering piled atop p.c. cliche.”
Safire, now a New York Times columnist, has published a set of writing rules. One of them is: “Avoid alliteration. Always.” That illustrates the ambivalence many people feel about the technique. Newspaper writers sometimes treat it like a guilty pleasure, apologizing immediately before or after using it. Editorialized the Dallas Morning News in March: “Our plan to label Bush a ‘Toxic Texan’ -- nice alliteration, eh? -- is right on schedule....” Cable TV host Chris Matthews was interviewing Dean when he tried to summarize Dean’s criticism of Dean’s own Democratic Party by saying: “If you want to put it into alliteration, the caving, the compromise, the corruption ....”
” ... regrettable, relentless, reliable, religious, remarkable, remiss, remorseful, repellent, repentant, repetitious (!!!!), reprehensive ... “
In Roth’s novel, Smith strings together 90 “R” words before a doctor walks into his hospital room and tells him that he risks death if he continues to alliterate so intensely.
“But you don’t understand!” Smith protests. “Alliteration is at the foundation of English literature. Any primer will tell you that much. It goes back to the very beginnings of written language.... I can’t give it up. No one can!”
Dwight Meredith, a liberal political writer from Atlanta, knows the sublime feeling of which Word Smith spoke -- the extra snap that alliteration, in knowing hands, can give a phrase. Last year, Meredith read a newspaper story suggesting that national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and White House political advisor Karl Rove might face a criminal investigation for the leak of a CIA agent’s name. Meredith posted a two-sentence reaction on the Internet:
“Karl and Condi in cuffs? I love alliteration.”