False accusation: threat or (mere) menace?

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There's an old headline-parody that involves posing a disjunctive question between two functionally equivalent alternatives, and "X: Threat or Menace?" is the most familiar form of this joke. We've used it more than once here on Language Log, for example in Geoff Nunberg's post "'Still unpacked': Threat or Menace?", 5/17/2005.

A web search turns up many more examples, headed by another LL post ("Rhetorical questions: Threat or Menace?", 9/17/2006), with the role of X played variously by Vista SP1, Twitter, NALP, Transhumanism, George Lucas, Version Targeting, Blogs, Girl Scouts, and so on.

This meme has been around for a while, though I don't know who started it when. A bit of searching turned up Mike Duffy, "Political satire: Threat or menace?",  The [New London] Day, 8/15/1982; and "ABC News: Threat or Menace?", The Village Voice, 6/26/1978. Before that, examples of the phrase "threat or menace" seem to be mostly instances of a commonplace legal redundancy, though I expect Ben Zimmer will track the use in headline parodies back to Ambrose Bierce, or perhaps Benjamin Franklin.

Returning to the present, Simon Cauchi sent me some evidence that the joke (or the legalism?) is interpreted by some as establishing a graded series of offenses. From "Mother jailed for her part in hoax", press.co.nz (which seems to be the online version of The Dominion Post), 4/15/2010:

Deane had also committed other dishonesty offences against vulnerable victims, including stealing money from a woman in a community home.

Deane's husband, Darren Deane, said yesterday his wife had been "slammed with a jail sentence" out of proportion to her offending and her jail sentence would be incredibly hard on the family. The youngest child was 11.

"My wife is not a threat to society. She was only a menace."

[Update -- there's a 2006 Ask Metafilter discussion of the origins of the X: Threat or Menace? meme. It links to an alt.usage.english discussion from 2004, in which Ben Zimmer (!) explains that Spider-man: Threat or Menace? "was the title of Amazing Spider-Man Annual #15, published in 1981. When the origin of the headline was discussed on rec.arts.comic.misc, no one was able to find it in the Stan Lee comics of the '60s (Jameson's first headline was simply 'Spider-Man Menace')".

Ben also explains that "The 1999 documentary 'Grass' includes clips from a black-and-white educational short called 'Marijuana: Threat or Menace?'.  One review says the short is from the 1950s".

There's also discussion of use in the Harvard Lampoon in the 1960s, transferred to the National Lampoon in the 1970s.]

[Update #2 -- there's a positive version, which I think is newer: "X: boon or blessing?"]

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23 Comments »

  1. Hugh said,

    April 15, 2010 @ 7:49 am

    http://www.theonion.com/articles/a-statement-followed-by-a-question-separated-by-a,10382/

  2. fs said,

    April 15, 2010 @ 7:58 am

    Huh. Personally, if I had to choose which of the two were 'more negative', I'd go with "menace".

  3. Trimegistus said,

    April 15, 2010 @ 8:02 am

    Didn't it originate in the Spider-Man comic, with the Daily Bugle asking "Spider-Man: Threat or Menace?"

  4. Mark P said,

    April 15, 2010 @ 8:05 am

    What I noticed was "dishonesty offenses."

  5. Bob said,

    April 15, 2010 @ 8:17 am

    I also always associated the phrase with Spider-Man. I think that's where I first heard the phrase. The Internet leads me to believe that its first use in The Daily Bugle was in Amazing Spider-Man annual #15 in 1981:
    http://www.comics.org/issue/34987/

  6. fev said,

    April 15, 2010 @ 8:28 am

    It was on the Lampoon cover in July 1971: "Pornography: Threat or Menace?" (tnx to "Mark's Very Large National Lampoon Site")

    [(myl) Link here -- picture here in case of link rot...]

  7. Ginger Yellow said,

    April 15, 2010 @ 8:49 am

    Personally, if I had to choose which of the two were 'more negative', I'd go with "menace".

    Likewise.

  8. Tim said,

    April 15, 2010 @ 9:05 am

    I would also think that threat < menace. A threat is merely potential, but you have to have already done something before you become a menace.

  9. Mr Punch said,

    April 15, 2010 @ 9:32 am

    The meme traces back at least to a Harvard Lampoon parody of (I think) Life Magazine in the mid 60s, which included an article headlined "Flying Saucers: Threat or Menace?"

  10. Ellen K. said,

    April 15, 2010 @ 10:04 am

    While I see the point about threat versus menace, in the case of being a threat or menace to society, I see "threat" as worse. "Threat to society" means the possibility of damage to society. "Menace to society" is merely being bothersome, without suggestion that the bothersomeness damages society.

  11. Greg Morrow said,

    April 15, 2010 @ 10:18 am

    I would be surprised if "Spider-Man: Threat or Menace?" in the Daily Bugle first appeared as late as 1981. I would have confidently ascribed it to the Lee/Ditko or Lee/Romita era, pre-1970.

    [(myl) In the cited rec.arts.comics thread, the person who describes not being able to find it before 1981 was apparently Kurt Busiek, who ought to be well informed. Pending a more specific citation, I'm inclined to accept his judgment.]

  12. Greg Morrow said,

    April 15, 2010 @ 10:22 am

    And depending on when that rec.arts.comics.misc discussion occurred, I might well have been in there saying exactly the same thing at that time.

  13. Dan T. said,

    April 15, 2010 @ 11:24 am

    It might be one of those lines that everybody thought was used (in this case, in the early Stan Lee Spider-Man comics) but didn't really appear (like "Play it again, Sam" and a whole list of other not-actually-used lines that everybody knows) until it finally got actually used in the 1981 annual. I believe "Beam me up, Scotty" wasn't actually used in the Star Trek original series, though it's been used a few times in later movies.

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 15, 2010 @ 12:33 pm

    For me, a menace is something lurking impalpably over the horizon that I can ignore for a while. (Yes, I know that's not how Dr. Johnson used it.) A threat is, "Do this or I'll hurt you." Threats are definitely worse.

  15. mollymooly said,

    April 15, 2010 @ 2:50 pm

    I have never heard or seen this joke before. "Threat or menace" does not strike me as a common collocation or set phrase. It gets 14 Googlehits in .ac.uk against 320 on .edu, whereas for "menace or threat" the ratio is 7:31.

    I surmise the joke is an almost purely American phenomenon. If so, I wonder whether this is because National Lampoon and/or Spiderman comics have/had minimal market penetration in the UK and Ireland, or because the original non-joke legal doublet "threat or menace" is confined to US Law.

  16. Christopher Henrich said,

    April 15, 2010 @ 2:51 pm

    Perhaps the word "menace" has been robbed of much of its—ummm— menace by the long=running cartoon "Dennis the Menace".

  17. Rubrick said,

    April 15, 2010 @ 5:39 pm

    Unfortunately its crosstown rival, "Brett the Threat", never caught on.

  18. Scott said,

    April 15, 2010 @ 6:04 pm

    I would have to disagree with a number of previous posters and posit that I find "threat" more negative than "menace." And I suspect that Christopher Henrich might be right to say that one particular menace–Dennis–may have done a great disservice to the word.

    "Menace" brings images of a neighborhood bully or, perhaps, a small parasite, like a tick, to mind. But a threat, well, we can talk about the Threat of Nuclear War or the Threat of a Global Epidemic–scary stuff! I can imagine the headline: "Al Qaeda–greatest threat of the 20th century!" I can't, however, imagine, "Al Qaeda–America's #1 menace!" with any seriousness.

  19. DGW said,

    April 15, 2010 @ 11:54 pm

    As Mr. Punch said, the phrase was (as I recall) applied to flying saucers in a Lampoon "Life Magazine" parody: date seems to have been 1968. As I recall the phrase was new _to me_ at that time.

  20. Bob Ladd said,

    April 16, 2010 @ 2:33 am

    I've also never heard the "threat or menace" phrase before (exposed mostly to American English until 1981, thereafter mostly to British). My impression is that "menace" referring to a difficult person is much more common in BrEng than in AmEng. I would have thought Scott's definition ("neighborhood bully or, perhaps, a small parasite, like a tick") was based on BrEng intuitions, except for his AmEng spelling of neighbo(u)rhood.

    In the interests of avoiding trans-Atlantic miscommunication, subsequent commenters please note: "Dennis the Menace" refers to two completely different cartoon characters in British and American English.

  21. Simon Cauchi said,

    April 16, 2010 @ 4:56 pm

    A small point of detail: The story at press.co.nz is credited to The Nelson Mail (naturally enough, since Nelson is where the woman appeared in court). Press.co.nz is the online version of The Press, the Christchurch daily newspaper. I was quite mistaken in thinking that this story came from Wellington's Dominion Post.

  22. Sean said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 10:47 pm

    "Boon or blessing" seems to suggest, to me, an implicit decision of whether something should be represented as being a mere materialistically advantageous thing, or a materialistically advantageous thing supposed to be taken for granted as having been decreed from "on high".

    I think it's a phrase rich with irony. – and, no doubt, in voicing my interpretation of the phrase, I've added my own opinion, in spades.

  23. Anton Sherwood said,

    October 13, 2013 @ 1:39 pm

    Isn't menace the French word for ‘threat’?

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