Monday, March 14, 2011

Until further notice, do not use “fallout” metaphorically when talking about the Japanese earthquake

Responsible creation of information sometimes requires that writers become explicitly aware of the metaphors they use.  This is hard because metaphors are everywhere and most of them are subconscious.  (In the previous sentence, hard, everywhere, and the sub- of subconscious are all metaphorical.)  Full-time, permanent attention to every metaphor we use would be paralyzing.

Nevertheless, attention must be paid.  Years ago I tut-tutted the prose of some engineering students who used the word “bypass” metaphorically (e.g., Our method bypasses many of the intricacies of more invasive surgeries…) in a paragraph that was comparing medical responses to clogged cardiac arteries.  A previous sentence (in the very same paragraph!) had mentioned coronary bypass surgery. 

The students grumbled that they had used the word bypass in a completely legitimate way so they should not be penalized.  My point to them: When comparing cardiac interventions, readers are almost guaranteed to misinterpret a metaphorical use of the word bypass. Metaphorical use of the word is frequently legitimate, but in this context, using it metaphorically imposes an unnecessary cognitive burden on readers, who will naturally think about bypassing arteries in physical space, not bypassing intricacies in abstract space.

Today is a good day to apply the same principle of good writing to the word fallout.  Some quick internet search reveals the following examples:

  • BAD:  An irresponsible headline atop a story on the website of the Toronto Star:  TXL opens lower as investors assess fallout of Japan disaster.
  • GOOD:  The use of an adjective (economic) to clearly eliminate the terrifying interpretation of fallout as nuclear fallout (from a story in the Wall Street Journal on line):  European stocks fell Monday, led by the insurance sector as investors worried about the economic fallout from the Japanese earthquake and resultant tsunami.
  • BAD:  A sentence from an AFP News StoryEurope's main stock markets fell Monday, hit by fallout from the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan…
  • VERY BAD: A sub-headline from a story on  U.S. stock index futures fell on Monday as investors fretted about the fallout from Japan's massive earthquake and tsunami.  This one qualifies as VERY BAD because even after parsing and interpreting the entire sentence, readers cannot tell whether the word fallout refers to a physical phenomenon (nuclear fallout) or a metaphorical phenomenon (economic disruption).

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