The anthropomorphic explosive device

Agency and a curious n-gram pitting "bomb exploded" vs "bomb was exploded"

Trebots @ Wednesday July 13th 2011 13:40

Bomb 20, citing existential philosophy, declines to abort detonation in John Carpenter's Dark Star (1974). Cf the Ugnaughts' talking bombs in Star Wars. More pics.

Unusual phrasing (to my ears anyway) in the New York Times report on the latest anarchist (or secret police) outrage in tomorrow's Barcelona Almanac entry:

Four bombs were exploded in different parts of the city this morning. No serious damage was done, but the excitement is intense. The authors of the outrage are unknown.

The n-gram is interesting:

My hunch is that the two great leaps of "bomb exploded" coinciding with the World Wars reflect the success of assailants in those conflicts in reducing their proximity to, and interactions with, their devices at the decisive moment, making attribution of agency rather more complicated: Europe's anarchist bomb-throwers and Italians who gaily chucked explosives from planes onto Ottoman tents were overtaken by victim-operated landmines and those "shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells", orchestrated by bureaucrats.

Given the time and the inclination, I'd probably try to attribute the general decline in "bomb was exploded" vis-à-vis "bomb exploded" starting in the 1960s to a politico-philosophical agenda which, perhaps learning from successful WWII genocidal euphemisms like "area bombing" and "precision bombing", needed the bomb-actor in order to be able to file, for example, IRA car bombs and London suicide attacks under Shit That Happens (But Whose Fault Is It Really?) rather than under Shit Done By Someone To Someone Else. (Compare the use of the passive voice to conceal agency in phrasing such as "An X was shot dead in Z this morning" vs "A suspected Y shot dead an X in Z this morning".)

The NYT is by far my favourite MSM source, but I guess I'd quite like to see relatively more of the 1899 formulation.

  1. Náiguel Puig i Clot
    July 14th 2011 17:49

    I really have my doubts about this whole attribution of agency thing, anyway. Seeing as the rate of occurrence of bad stuff seems unaffected by the rate of removal of bad stuff's agents from polite society, one could be forgiven for thinking that these latter are actually sacrificing themselves to the greater good of maintaining the moral order - and should be duly compensated for this selflessness.

 

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