Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Is Yahoo Serious?

I can't call it a snowclone. I'm not sure what name I would give for the pattern--other than 'tired joke.' A story on NPR about James Burrow's new sitcom starring Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton has been given the title "'Back to You' Crew: Sitcoms Are Serious Business." No one expects this headline to elicit a laugh of course but it is playing with the connotations of serious. Jokes are serious? How can that be? I thought jokes were only funny!

A Google™ search tells us that the following are "(a) serious business" in a search for "[X] are (a) serious business":

  • Games (5X)

  • Cybernet games

  • Legos

  • Toys (3X)

  • funnies

  • Funny Ads

  • comedies

  • comics (4X)

  • jokes (2X)

  • hoots and hollers (ie laughter)

Those were all found within 200 results (100 each for [X] is serious business and [X] is a serious business). These reversals were not the most common subjects--they make up about 10% of all results.

I would create 4 tiers of the types of results. The first is use devoid of irony. The writers who claim that hurricanes, missles, eating disorders, drugs or allergies are serious are speaking with cheek clear of all tongue. The only slight reversal in the list might be something like "allergies": an affliction some people might consider a mere nuisance but which the writer is saying is a source of real suffering for some people.

I'll put the first list above into an opposing tier: opposing the 2nd list and directly opposing expectation. It's a list of topics that would often be considered contradictory to seriousness. In fact the definition of several of these could easily include the necessary quality that they are not serious. Likewise, serious activity might easily be defined as an activity/event that does not allow games or anything funny or comical.

The third tier would be a list of topics/objects that would not normally be considered serious and which might more likely be considered contrary to seriousness. Cupcakes, birthday parties, and noodles would rarely be defined as serious, but neither would I expect anyone to sp define a cupcake as a non-serious item. But if prompted to rate the seriousness my guess is that these types of objects would fall on the non-serious side. Only an impression--but I'm pretty certain... Non-seriousness may not be a necessary connotation, but seriousness might be an incompatible connotation.

One last tier is the completely neutral. Mowers, acquisitions, reunions and minivans have no typical connotation to either seriousness or non-seriousness. Claiming that these are serious business has no strong implication of bet ya didn't think so...like humor or burritos. Yes it does blend on the edge with the 3rd tier. Especially since inference is a slippery determiner of connotation.

There is of course no clear line between any of these tiers. And any arguement based solely on my inferrences is easily boring even to me. But there is an interesting pattern at each end--of either typical intention or reversal of intention--that favours repetition of items that are in the first two tiers. Illness and disaster are represented heavily as are humor and play.

Out of 200 results 26 said humor or play was serious business. Another 26 said disaster or disease was serious business. These 52 results were distinct results: repetitions were not counted. That left 148 results. The remaining 148 comprised a variety of results: food, legal procedures, machines (technology in general), cultural/mass-media references, hobbies, botany, biology, travel...and all the repetitions thereof.

I decided to leave out any search using "is" because I figured "are" made the point already. But the first 10 results for "* is serious business" turn up 2 results for "comedy"--so maybe using "is" would have made the point better.

Well clearly this is not quite the most scientific survey. So far from it in fact that I should just drop the litotes and say it flat out: this is not a scientific survey. But it does show a pattern with general antonymy that I mentioned in a post a while ago when I wrote

Somewhere in that encyclopedic matrix of 'what this word means' is an awareness of what the word does not mean and a sense of the word's opposites and even complements.

Sometimes that awareness is subconscious and sometimes its foremost in our intention. And that awareness leads us to rely too often on those opposed meanings--thinking too often that we are the first to come up with a clever use of a word.

1 comment:

  1. I really think this is interesting -- the study of "seriousness." It seems to point to something unnamed, between the lines... I keep feeling the impulse to call Hawthorne's writing "serious," but if I allowed myself to be totally candid, I would say something more like, "ontotheologically important." And I think humor can certainly do that. Could someone find "salvation" or "enlightenment" by way of a joke? I think so -- isn't that what Lao Tzu's gig was?


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