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.
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.