Consider the X

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Over on The Loom, the blogging home of my brother Carl Zimmer, a discussion about bad science writing was sparked by a particularly noxious Esquire article. (The description of cardiologist Hina Chaudhry as "a lab-worn doctor-lady" is just the tip of the iceberg.) In the comments, David Fishman left the cryptic remark, "Consider the armadillo." Carl revealed that this was an in-joke dating back to 1989, when the two of them were budding science reporters at Discover Magazine:

Our editors always warned us against writing openings and transitions with words no sane person would ever utter. Which we epitomized as, "Consider the armadillo."

"Consider the armadillo" does indeed sound like journalistic hackwork, all the more because it's in the form of a snowclone. In one early formulation, Geoff Pullum defined snowclones as "some-assembly-required adaptable cliché frames for lazy journalists." In this case, the crutch for lazy (science) writers goes all the way back to the New Testament.

Here are the famous lines of Luke 12:24 and 12:27 in the King James Version:

Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap; which neither have storehouse nor barn; and God feedeth them: how much more are ye better than the fowls?



Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

Luke 12:24 closely resembles Matthew 6:26, from the Sermon on the Mount:

Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?

The English words consider (Luke) and behold (Matthew) map onto different words in the original Koine Greek. The Greek word translated as consider in the KJV is katanoēsate (κατανοήσατε), the aorist imperative plural form of katanoeo (κατανοέω), "to observe fully." The frame "consider the X" where X is one of God's creatures also recalls an imperative from the Old Testament: Proverbs 6:6 reads, "Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise." (The 1995 "God's Word" translation makes the parallel to Luke more explicit but with decidedly less exalted phrasing: "Consider the ant, you lazy bum. Watch its ways, and become wise.")

Since at least the nineteenth century, "Consider the X" variants have flourished, often directly evoking the Gospel of Luke. Christina Rossetti's 1866 poem "Consider" moves from "the lilies of the field" to consider "the sparrows of the air of small account" and "the birds that have no barn nor harvest-weeks." Similarly, an 1881 religious tract compares Luke 12:27 to the Wordsworth poem, "To the Daisy":

Wordsworth, in his verses on the daisy, rises to the sublime; and most evidently to him the daisy brought exactly the spirit of the lesson our Lord intended in his "Consider the lilies." Perhaps, if He had spoken to us, He would have said, "Consider the daisies."

Journalists frequently turned to this snowclone over the course of the twentieth century. For instance, a 1925 article in Time, "Hoover on Fish," begins:

A goodly number of representatives of the Governors of coastal states from Texas to Maine will present themselves, next week, to the Secretary of Commerce. "Consider the fish," Mr. Hoover will say.

The article goes on to imagine other imperatives from Hoover: "consider the herring," "consider the cod," and "consider the salmon." Two decades later, in 1946, Time ran an article with the headline "Consider the Termite," after Winston Churchill made a disparaging comparison between the life of white ants (aka termites) and socialism.

A famous use of the "Consider the X" snowclone appeared in the title of MFK Fisher's 1941 book, Consider the Oyster, a whimsical treatise on the oyster's gastronomical wonders. Fisher's title would later inspire David Foster Wallace's 2004 article for Gourmet Magazine, "Consider the Lobster," which served as the title for a collection of Wallace's essays published the following year. There have also been books entitled Consider the Butterfly, Consider the Crows, Consider the Daisies, Consider the Elephant, and Consider the Eel.

And what about that pesky armadillo? It's already been considered, of course. The biologist Barry R. Bloom wrote a 1975 op/ed piece for the New York Times about the pressing need for research on tropical diseases. He gives the example of how research on the armadillo has led to breakthroughs in the treatment of leprosy. The headline, naturally, is "Consider the Armadillo." I'm willing to bet that the headline wasn't composed by Dr. Bloom but rather by a snowclone-happy editor at the Times.

[My favorite riff on Luke 12:27, though not a snowclone exactly, is in the movie "O Brother Where Art Thou?", when Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) speaks in typically florid style about his dim-witted sidekick Delmar O'Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson):

Everett: Pete, the personal rancor reflected in that remark I don't intend to dignify with comment. But I would like to address your general attitude of hopeless negativism. Consider the lilies of the goddamn field or... hell! Take at look at Delmar here as your paradigm of hope.


Delmar: Yeah, look at me.

]

[Update, 1/14: In my discussion of Biblical passages, I neglected to include the passage from the Sermon on the Mount that corresponds with Luke 12:27. Here is Matthew 6:28:

And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.

The Koine Greek verb glossed as "consider" is slightly different here: it's katamathete (καταμάθετε), an aorist form of katamanthano (καταμανθάνω). So much for my career as an exegete.]

[Update #2: Over on The Frontal Cortex, a commenter mentions another good literary example: the Ogden Nash poem that begins "Consider the auk."]



32 Comments

  1. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 12:57 am

    There was also a "Deep Thoughts" by Jack Handey (from Saturday Night Live) that went

    "Consider the daffodil. And while you're doing that, I'll be over here, looking through your stuff."

  2. Don Sample said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 1:56 am

    And of course there is the favourite phrase of people trying to ban just about anything: "Consider the children."

  3. Steve Harris said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 2:17 am

    Why does this remind me, not of the Bible, but of Rod Serling and "The Twilight Zone"?

    I think Serling began some of his introductory remarks with "Consider X". I never got the impression it was referring back to the New Testament; but that may have been ignorance on my part.

  4. outeast said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 3:27 am

    'Consider the children' is not, I think, the same: it is 'think of the children' ('take their needs into consideration'), rather than 'think about the children' ('meditate on their nature').

  5. Nicholas Clayton said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 4:14 am

    And the convention used – most typically in physics – for an explanation from first principles. As when a layperson asks idly how his electric shaver works and with sinking heart hears "Consider a single electron in infinite space …."

  6. Dougal Stanton said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 4:30 am

    To me the most famous example of "consider the X" is in direct biblical parody, from Life of Brian:

    BRIAN: Oh, uhh, no, the point is the birds. They do all right. Don't they?
    FRANK: Well, good luck to 'em.
    EDDIE: Yeah. They're very pretty.
    BRIAN: Okay, and you're much more important than they are, right? So, what are you worrying about? There you are. See?
    EDDIE: I'm worrying about what you have got against birds.
    BRIAN: I haven't got anything against the birds. Consider the lilies.
    ARTHUR: He's having a go at the flowers now.

    In which case, whenever I see the phrase "consider the X" I can't help but think "he's having a go at the X now". It is clear literature is spoiled for me now. ;-)

  7. John S. Wilkins said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 5:26 am

    Also, see Proverbs 6:6-8 in the KJV:

    Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise:
    Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler,
    Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.

  8. Nigel Greenwood said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 5:34 am

    @ Nicholas Clayton: and the splendid title of John Harte's book on problem-solving, Consider a Spherical Cow.

  9. Harry said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 6:13 am

    A shout-out to William Tyndale, who never gets the credit for his work; the KJV is basically using his translation here, after all.

    Wycliffe, for comparison:

    24 Biholde ye crowis, for thei sowen not, nethir repen, to whiche is no celer, ne berne, and God fedith hem. Hou myche more ye ben of more prijs than thei. [...] 27 Biholde ye the lilies of the feeld, hou thei wexen; thei trauelen not, nethir spynnen. And Y seie to you, that nethir Salomon in al his glorie was clothid as oon of these.

    Tyndale:

    24 Considre the ravens for they nether sowe nor repe which nether have stoorehousse ner barne and yet God fedeth them. How moche are ye better then the foules. [...] 27 Considre the lylies how they growe: They laboure not: they spyn not: and yet I saye vnto you that Salomon in all this royalte was not clothed lyke to one of these.

    KJV:

    24 Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap; which neither have storehouse nor barn; and God feedeth them: how much more are ye better than the fowls? [...] 27 Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

  10. Nicholas Waller said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 6:14 am

    Not a snowclone but a direct reference, Consider Her Ways is a John Wyndham sf novella of a non-male future in which the women have followed "the advice of the Bible: 'Go to the ant thou sluggard, consider her ways', and created a caste-based society".

  11. Bob Lieblich said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 8:12 am

    @Steve Harris — My recollection (refreshed by relatively recent re-viewings of "Twilight Zone" reruns with my children) is that the line from Serling that you remember came at the end of episodes and began: "Submitted for your consideration…" My kids adopted it briefly as a catchphrase, complete with Serling's unmistakable tight-jawed inflection. As a practicing attorney I've had a few opportunities to argue a case to a court, and I've thought on occasion of starting with "Submitted for your consideration" in lieu of "May it please the court." But I lack the nerve.

  12. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 8:31 am

    Just to clarify, the "Consider the X" snowclone works best when X is one of God's natural creations — fauna or flora — by analogy with the ravens and lilies in Luke. We're not just talking about any plain old imperative of consideration.

    John S. Wilkins: Reread (or should I say reconsider?) the post — I do mention the echo of Proverbs 6:6.

  13. Steve said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 9:12 am

    One more movie quote, though I forget the name of the movie: a conman clergyman (I can't remember if a real clergyman, or just disguised as one) comes out with 'Consider the bears in the woods. Do they not shit?'

  14. Eyebrows McGee said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 9:28 am

    It's as if an occult hand had a thing for armadillos ….

  15. Elaine said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 10:33 am

    It's so ubiquitous that 'Consider the birds' has been picked up by this author as a title for his book.

  16. Theodore said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 11:17 am

    As for the Esquire article, c'mon: It's an Esquire article! I have a feeling readers aren't there looking to get all scienced-up. Consider (ahem) the photo of Dr. Chaudhry that leads the piece. These are readers who want to see some snowclones. Writers are just meeting the demand.

  17. Bobbie said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

    OK, here is the weird part for me. A **woman (Lisa Taddeo, who seems to be a regular writer for Esquire) wrote the article and yet it still contains sexist phrases

    Examples:"… . She is a pretty lady of Pakistani heritage who highlights her soccer-mom layers, which you don't expect from a lab-worn doctor-lady. And she's got ideas. Wild ones. Hina Chaudhry believes she can do what the body can't: fix the dead parts….
    "…Chaudhry says it was women's intuition. The holy-shit solution. It came to her during a seminar at UPenn when she was twenty-nine."

    Yes, that's the way they write at Esquire (with descriptions of each person's physical attributes). Taddeo's sexist phrases must appeal to her editors and her readers.

    But I have to say, Esquire Magazine has had some very good (and amazingly well-though-out) articles over the years.
    .

  18. gribley said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 12:38 pm

    O frabjous day, when both of the Zimmer brothers take on one of my favorite constructions! I use the "Consider the X" a fair bit, in an ironic sort of way, but I am fond of the original as well. When my mother, a staunch American Catholic, is describing some minor problem to which I have no solution, I like to bust out a "Consider the lilies of the fields…" (which is how I learned it). If it's not particularly helpful, at least it's a reminder that I learned something from all those years of Catholic school.

    I tend to think, however, that "consider a…" or "consider this" is the broader pedagogical usage, perhaps interchangeable with "Observe…", as in "Observe this simple salt cellar" [Dirk Gently, if I am not mistaken]. It seems to me, with absolutely no evidence to back it up, that this pedagogical form "consider…" or "observe…" might have been the original, with the Biblical translation adopting that tone.

    As Nicholas says, this form is quite common in physics, enough so that it is reflected in the punchline of a famous physics joke: "…consider a spherical cow". This chestnut is so widely known that it's also the title of a book.

  19. Nigel Greenwood said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 12:56 pm

    @ gribley: the punchline of a famous physics joke: "…consider a spherical cow". This chestnut is so widely known that it's also the title of a book.

    Widely known indeed …

  20. Boris said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 1:01 pm

    Thank you for joining me on "Consider the Following"
    — Bill Nye

  21. Sili said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 3:51 pm

    Are you saying that a perfectly spherical cow is not one of God's natural creations?

  22. jackofhearts29 said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 5:31 pm

    The weirdest thing for me in this article is the line "kitten-faced controversy."
    Is this what passes for Gonzo journalism nowadays, or just bad writing?

  23. Bobbie said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 7:14 pm

    What **is "kitten-faced controversy"? (Or what do you think the author meant?)

  24. Andrey said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 8:02 pm

    Pop culture reference: "Consider the shark, an aerial killing machine! Consider the crocodile, an equally aerial killing machine!" – Adult Swim ad for some show on the Cartoon Network circa 2003-2004

  25. Mark A. Mandel said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 10:08 pm

    Consider the snowclone…

  26. John S. Wilkins said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 11:06 pm

    Ben said John S. Wilkins: Reread (or should I say reconsider?) the post — I do mention the echo of Proverbs 6:6.

    You know, I went through it to check before I commented and I still missed it…

  27. JHB said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 6:26 am

    Just to lower the tone, there's a parody which goes something like this:

    Go to the ant, O thou Sluggard:
    Consider her ways and be wise;
    Well I've been to the ant and I'm buggered
    If I think she's one up on us guys.
    All that running about is damn silly
    And uneconomic I bet.
    I'd rather consider the lily;
    It's got Solomon beat and no sweat.

    Any cock-ups in metre are mine through poor memory and I can't remember who wrote it, but you get the idea…

  28. G.L. Dryfoos said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 6:38 am

    The article did appear in Esquire, after all, so consider the source.

  29. nd said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 7:00 am

    You can push the snowcloning date back a bit before Wordsworth (though the phrasing isn't quite the same): there's a section of Christopher Smart's "Jubilate Agno" beginning "For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry…"

  30. Curious Bunny said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 5:10 am

    Lee and Herring made a whole sketch out of "Consider the lily" in the late 90s, sadly now expunged from YouTube, though Wikipedia has a bit on it.

  31. Monte Davis said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 8:35 am

    That's a spherical homogeneous frictionless cow, if you please.

  32. Chris said,

    September 28, 2009 @ 10:00 am

    I think the most famous version I've seen growing up was from the Simpsons. "Won't somebody please think of the children." Not the exact diction, but close enough. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qh2sWSVRrmo

    I also hear the consider argument typically in discussions that usually have science and religion put together. Like in the creationism vs evolution debate, they're always someone that says "consider God's will" or "consider God's actions".

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