Trying to Be Cute

On mistakes in writing and speech, modern and ancient.


Where virtues live, live vices.

Figures of speech are no less afflicted by this schism, although classifying them accordingly is as much a matter of taste, nuance, and circumstance, as any binary division of a continuous scale.

Following The vices of style by William Poole (Chapter 13 in Renaissance Figures of Speech), there are essentially two ways to approach this dichotomy:

  • Fine linguistic feats are opposed by abominations, but they are both just obverse sides of the same tool. (Idea drawn from Peacham’s observations.)
  • Virtuous rhetoric lies between the vicious extremes: plain language, on the one side, and various modes of excessive ornamentation, on the other. (Idea of Aristotelian mean.)

I call the first, the coin model; the second, the razor model.

Take the familiar notion of alliteration (starting consecutive or nearby words with the same consonant), which I develop in Ad Nauseam.

  • According to the coin model, alliteration can be both a good thing (it yokes ideas to words in mnemonics, it gives poems their glitter, it turns headlines into hooks, it makes names memorable, it lends a twist to prose), but it can also be a bad thing (it makes poems sound shallow, headlines puerile, names forced, prose juvenile).
  • According to the razor model, a gracious application of alliteration lies between the dullness of plain “tone-deaf” writing and the grossness of overuse (paroemion).

However, before you can talk about vices or virtues (using either model), you need to be able to classify the figures themselves. But surely, you say …

… No, not surely. The taxonomy of speech figures is as overlapping and fused as the branches and roots of an old-old tree (just follow some of the hyperlinks in silva rhetoricae, or The Forest of Rhetoric, an enviable, comprehensive online repository). If we take the Sophists to be the first to seed the Western tradition of rhetoric in the 4th century BC, then perhaps the correct tree to have in mind—temporally speaking, planted around that time even if not in the Occident—would be the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, a sacred fig tree in Sri Lanka. It is said to have been grown from a sapling of the tree under which Buddha received enlightenment.

By w:James Ricalton Public domain or Public domain, <a href=

In Ad Nauseam I discuss extreme repetition; today I tackle “mistakes”: what happens when writing tries to be cute but the result signals more of the tries then of the cute.

In terms of endearing punning mechanisms or linguistic slip-ups you may have heard of:

  • malapropism: inappropriate application of similar-sounding warts (an invigorate drinker, instead of inveterate drinker).
  • spoonerism: inversion of word-parts, often a punning mechanism or slip of the tongue (it was pouring with rain, becomes it was roaring with pain).
  • malaphor: a modern word, not yet included in the OED. A portmanteau of metaphor and malapropism, which means the blending of two phrase or idioms. My favourites from the Oxford Dictionaries blog link above are: Don’t judge a book until it’s hatched and We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it. Although, I am surprised this phenomenon hasn’t become entrenched in the past four hundred years; Shakespeare would conflate not just two, but three sayings (e.g. Hamlet 2.4.168).
  • solecism: traditionally a misuse of gender, case, or tenses in Ancient Greek; in English, it implies incorrect grammar or syntax, or a breach of etiquette (whom is at the door, when it should be who).

A few figures from classical rhetoric (and there are many more) would be:

  •  acyrology: misapplication of similar sounding or similar-meaning words in inappropriate ways (buckle your shirt, instead of button your shirt); malapropism is a type of acarology,
  • catachresis: misapplication of a word (my roomscape is ugly, where scape is co-opted for a different purpose); acyrology is a type of catachresis,
  • cacozelia: unsuccessfully affecting a style, for example by throwing in foreign words or being deliberately rude (vis-à-vis schadenfreude, I have little to say, other than de gustibus non est disputandum: if you wish to expend your mental energy on negative karma, I shall not stop you).

Finally, here are some real life examples taken from Nature headlines. Though none of them are mistakes per se, there’s a niggling iffiness about them.

  • Flipping the scales: A play on tipping the scales. From context we learn these are reptile scales. A mixed play on words with an unclear message.
  • Water flows out of touch: Perhaps a malaphor combining to be out of touch and water flows … I’m not sure where: downhill, uphill, or is it a farfetched allusion to Heraclitus and panta rhei?
  • The case of the mysterious messenger: Perhaps a literary allusion but not sure which one.
  • The risks of reading the brain: A play on reading someone’s mind, with clear meaning, but sounds like an inappropriate synonym has been plugged in to get a pun.
  • Quasars signpost massive galaxies: A case of cacamphaton, which means ill-sounding. The meaning is clear, the verb choice commendable, but it reads like an attempt at consonance or creativity gone slightly too far.
  • Cassini’s science swan-song: Likewise.


I’d like to stress that I am not picking on Nature Magazine specifically—I just happen to enjoy their articles. Also, I am obviously not the first to notice their pun-fun inclinations. Indeed, the magazine itself has published an article entitled Writing for international journals: tips and techniques. (Kyle Vogan is a senior editor of Nature Genetics).

Avoid puns [in titles], since they are not usually very helpful, lead to fewer citations, and tend to make papers invisible to web searches. Besides, Vogan added, these attempts at humour tend to be funnier to the authors than to anyone else. As an example, he pointed to a paper published in the journal Bioinformatics with the title “Multiple alignment by aligning alignments“. “I don’t know what that actually means, except that they are trying to be cute,” Vogan said.

The “cuteness” in the cited title is due to a polyptoton (repeating of the same word multiple times). Clearly some polyptotons do make it through; in Come Again? I cited two examples: A solid more fluid then a fluid, and Manipulation of the manipulators. Not too shabby, and possibly indicative of where the sub-editors draw the line.

While we’re at it, I can’t resist: I recently came across a most lavish exhibition of polyptoton in Shakespeare’s Richard II. This is erstwhile King Richard II speaking upon abdicating and handing his crown to Henry Bolingbroke (4.1.195–9).

Your cares set up do not pluck my cares down.
My care is loss of care, by old care done,
Your care is gain of care, by new care won.
The cares I give I have, though given away,
They tend the crown yet still with me they stay.

Shakespeare gets away with it. In the same way that Strunk and White say you can get away with overwriting, so long as you compensate for it by a show of vigor, and by writing something as meritorious as the Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.

Perhaps Nature should be thought of as the Shakespeare or the Solomon of the scientific community, and therefore a bit of cute is to be overlooked, even when it occasionally sounds cutesy.

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

6 thoughts on “Trying to Be Cute”

  1. The one that I find most annoying is the misuse of “You and I” when it should be “You and me.” My brother just rang me as I was reading this post and told me that our sister was “intending to send similar Christmas presents to you and I this year.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, isn’t this a result of it seeping into the popular consciousness that a common mistake is You and me should go do this and that, so people overcompensate in other situations?

      Or maybe they’re just echoing T. S. Eliot’s Let us go then, you and I, (/ When the evening is spread out against the sky).


  2. I think Nature magazine are going to have an issue with you 😀
    … I love Don’t judge a book until it’s hatched, in all irony it works – understood as such!
    finally, I thought your image of the skeletal umbrellas was a visual alliteration, and very memorable for it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha, I hope not … I’m trying to give a fair analysis 🙂

      Glad you like the skeletal umbrellas!

      The malaphor I came up with was “Between a rock and the deep blue sea”—not that original, but I thought it might work when you’re stuck between climbing a cliff and treading water.

      Liked by 1 person

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