The Flavour of Personhood

On personification in titles of “Nature Magazine”.

Sequence of a Fata Morgana of the Farallon Islands as seen from San Francisco. (Brocken Inaglory CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons)


To improve the taste of an insipid factual statement, baste in metaphor, bake with active verbs, and serve soused in piquant words. But be wary of overdoing it.

For example: There was a mirage on the horizon.

Could be changed to: Sun-drunk air shimmered in the offing.

Regardless of whether the edit is an improvement, it is a more complex piece of writing which triggers a more complex response. In particular, the reader recognises the sentence as not being literal because air cannot be drunk.

Personification structures a notion in terms of human characteristics, abilities, motivations. It’s the kind of metaphor that allows for drunk air or educated stem cells or radio bursts that are burglars. Continuing with the Nature theme, today I offer a few titles that involve scientific thingamajigs behaving like people (unlike most of my other articles on personification that gave examples from literature).

I first give the title in italics, then my non-metaphorical rephrasing (that often uses phrases from articles’ subtitles).

Is there any case in which you prefer my title? I’m guessing not. The original personifications animate the imagination while preserving some relationship with the actual content: even if you can’t guess exactly what’s going on, the keywords give you an idea.

It could be worse.

(By Brocken Inaglory CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons)


Indeed, sometimes the title is a fixed, worn phrase that is either applied wholesale to an unexpected subject, or tweaked slightly (and applied to an unexpected subject). In those cases, like with the last example above, you can’t be sure whether the keywords apply literally or metaphorically.

Titles are in italics; subject matter in parentheses.

  • A matter of time. (Quantum physics, time crystals.)
  • Huffing and Puffing. (Cigarettes.)
  • Imperfect storm. (Hurricane Harvey.)
  • Made of stone. (On taking down statues of people with doubtful human rights records.)
  • Robots stop to smell the flowers. (Robots gather plant data)
  • Spot the difference. (Not a visual game, but cancer research.)
  • The next best thing. (Cancer models.)
  • Troubled waters. (Clean water.)
  • Universal truth. (Antihydrogen that holds the Universe together.)
  • Divided by a common purpose. (Getting vocal over funding.)
  • Mould money.  (Disc of mould that was part of the penicillin batch used by Alexander Fleming auctioned off, a play on old money.)
  • Combine and conquer. (Having two graduate degrees, a play on divide and conquer.)

Would you have guessed the subject from the title? And if not, does that leave you feeling your attention has been slightly manoeuvred, if for a good cause?

I’m reminded of a line from Sol Stein’s book, Stein on Writing:

The point to remember is that the primary function of a title is not to convey as much meaning as to sound enticing and if possibly exude resonance.

He’s talking about books, but why should science be any less enticing?



N.B. Title commentary and article summaries are my own—I have no evidence of intent from the editors of Nature, nor am I an expert in the various scientific fields. I welcome alternative interpretations or insights.

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

One thought on “The Flavour of Personhood”

  1. I quite like that science authors take the time to entice us in with a little laugh at their pun or reference to a well-known phrase used in a different context. I hadn’t realised that Nature was such a rich source of examples – do the editors encourage using an enticing title/ do they offer their own suggestions? Nature editors out there – please read this post and previous ones and let us know, thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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