More possible than they can powerfully imagine

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For an update on the British Chiropractic Association's libel suit against Simon Singh, see Ben Goldacre, "We are more possible than you can powerfully imagine", Bad Science, 7/29/2009.  After noting the general freedom-of-speech issue, and the specific public interest in open debate about medical claims, Ben adds:

But beyond whether it is right, there is the more entertaining issue of whether it was wise, and here it is hard to contain a sense of schadenfreude as the chiropractors’ world unravels.

And as his link-rich history makes clear, the BCA's well-deserved misfortune would not have happened without new (and mostly amateur) internet-based media:

… there are lessons from this debacle – beyond the ethical concerns over suing in the field of science and medicine – and they are clear. First, if you have reputation and superficial plausibility more than evidence to support your activities, then it may be wise to keep under the radar, rather than start expensive fights. But more interestingly than that, a ragged band of bloggers from all walks of life has, to my mind, done a better job of subjecting an entire industry’s claims to meaningful, public, scientific scrutiny than the media, the industry itself, and even its own regulator. It’s strange this task has fallen to them, but I’m glad someone is doing it, and they do it very, very well indeed.

The title of his post, "We are more possible than you can powerfully imagine", is a play on Obi-Wan Kenobi's line in the first Star Wars movie:

Darth Vader: Your powers are weak, old man.
Obi-Wan: You can't win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.

Goldacre's intentional spoonerism works because in this case, the nature of the BCA's power is exactly what blinded it to the possibilities of its opponents.

I'm sure that there have been many other examples of effective headline spoonerisms, but for some reason, none come to mind at the moment. Perhaps, on reflection, this technique is too undignified for serious periodicals, and too subtle for the tabloids.

[Note, by the way, that Goldacre's swap also exemplifies several of the principles governing the distribution of unintentional speech-error exchanges: "powerful" and "possible" start with the same phoneme, are both adjectives, and have the same number of syllables and the same stress pattern.]


  1. Chad Nilep said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 11:21 am

    Yes, Santa, There is a Virginia

  2. James Martin said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 11:36 am

    Nice headline! But is it really a spoonerism? That word is generally used for a switching of initial consonants, or of vowels, or occasionally of whole syllables, resulting in words which are not cognate to the ones in the original phrase. Here he has switched two entire words around.

    [(myl) Well, among the examples apocryphally attributed to the Rev. Spooner is "Work is the curse of the drinking class", which similarly swaps morphemes.

    And I think that usage of the term spoonerism among psycholinguists generally includes anticipations, perseverations and swaps at all levels. Thus in M. Celce-Murcia, "Meringer's Corpus Revisited", in V. Fromkin (Ed.) Speech Errors as Linguistic Evidence, 1973, we find:

    Another category of errors discussed by Meringer was 'spoonerisms' — reversals or switchings of words, morphemes, syllables, sound segments, and sound features.

    It's true that the Rev. Spooner's collected apocrypha have more swaps of segments, onsets, syllables etc. than words or morphemes, e.g. "You have tasted the whole worm" (for "you have wasted the whole term"), "Queer old dean" (for "dear old queen"), etc.). But I suspect that this is more of a literary convention in this British counterpart to the contrepet and noi lai literatures, rather than a reflection of the actual statistics of speech errors:


  3. James Martin said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 11:40 am

    P.S. Supposedly there was a tabloid headline "Cheggers can't be boozers" about Keith Chegwin's fight against alcoholism – but I'm not sure if it really ever appeared in print….

  4. Christopher Henrich said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 11:54 am

    Chad Nilep reminds me of a plot line in Walt Kelly's Pogo, in which the Bear, impersonating Santa Claus, was dismayed to learn that "Georgia" was in the USSR. To reassure him, Howland Owl wrote a quick editorial: Dear Santa Claus: Yes, there is a Virginia."

    I offer a spoonerism of (I think) my own:

    If it ducks like a quack, it probably is one.

  5. Andrew Clegg said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 12:03 pm

    I read that headline twice (there then here) without seeing the reversal until Mark pointed it out. I guess those Star Wars lines are pretty deeply ingrained.

    @Christopher: Nice. And apt.

  6. parvomagnus said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 12:36 pm

    I'd always seen "work is the curse of the drinking class" attributed to Oscar Wilde, though wikiquotes puts it in the "unsourced" section.

  7. John Cowan said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

    Doug Hofstadter's research group uses "spoonerism" for exchanging the beginnings of strings, "forkerism" for exchanging their ends, and "kniferism" for exchanging their middles.

  8. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 3:23 pm

    @James Martin: B. Kliban once did a cartoon with the caption, "Chiggers can't be boozers."

  9. Joe Fineman said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 8:32 pm

    There used to be a regular spooneristic column in the Saturday Evening Post, and many of its exchanges involved three or more words, as in "a moakress eethed in satter" for "a mattress soaked in ether". (Likewise, one of my own spooneristic tales included " 'Man your grinders!' he moused" & "I bent over to wet his favorite gear".) In the face of such possibilities, I believe that Prof. Hofstadter's venture into a fine-grained typology is likely become excessively ramified.

  10. Yuval said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 4:52 am

    Israelis sometimes use the extra use of the Hebrew word for "limited" as a person with a closed mindset, to call America "the land of impossible limiteds", a play on "the land of unlimited possibilities".
    No offense.

  11. weaver said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 1:53 am

    Doug Hofstadter's research group uses "spoonerism" for exchanging the beginnings of strings, "forkerism" for exchanging their ends, and "kniferism" for exchanging their middles.

    As a childhood victim of rigidly enforced rules of cutlery placement, this disturbs me greatly.

  12. Bob Ladd said,

    August 9, 2009 @ 2:02 am

    Another example of the kind of wordplay in Goldacre's title and some of the comments is "No left turn unstoned", supposedly an actual case of a vandalized road sign around 1970.

  13. Eric Mitz said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 1:56 pm

    I found this page while surfing on the Singh issue. The article, and even the comments, are insightful. How about this headline:


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