Wednesday, February 21, 2007

When an alliterative approach is a false friend

The article in this Sunday’s San Francisco chronicle focused on how statistics of Iraq war injuries and fatalities are being kept under wraps by the current administration. But it was one of the ways these casualties of warfare were described that particularly stood out. Friendly fire.

For what it represents, this phrase is an offensive descriptor. Many people have commented that there is nothing friendly about fire of any kind (artillery or combustive).

So why has it become an accepted phrase? Why has it stuck in pop culture consciousness? Perhaps there is some aspect to alliteration that makes it easy for the brain to store and the mind remember. If there is a neurologist, or neurolinguistic expert able to weigh in (Mr Pinker?) OFD would certainly like to hear your perspective on how physical, cognitive and language development might work together to explain this tendency.

As a linguistic construct, alliteration abounds in everyday life. World wide web. Frequent flier. One imagines several brands are using this device as a way to aid retention in people’s mind. Best Buy. Jamba Juice. Bed Bath and Beyond. Some make sense. But there are those examples in which communication clarity – and meaning – are subservient to the form.

Take American Advantage. As one of a countless number of frequent flier programs, it is really not clear there is any advantage to this brand’s offering at all. And then of course there’s accidental assassination amidst armed assault. Surely, it is time for the idea and the meaning it carries to triumph beyond the convenience of form, as is sadly the case with Friendly fire.

It is a point that educators in England would do well to note. An actual lesson plan which pays homage to alliteration is scary enough. We should be careful not to raise an entire generation of people who are more enamored with the form rather than the content. This is perhaps only to be expected. We live in an age in which content is so often relegated in importance to appearance; in which what's immediately discernible on the outside and requires no effort to understand is prized at the expense of any deeper engagement. The best alliteration requires no effort yet maintains clarity of meaning. Lazy alliteration, however memorable, forces a compromise not worth taking.

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