The Recency Illusion: Etiolated

You know when you see something for the very first time, and then all of a sudden it seems to pop up everywhere? And I don’t mean the sudden, urgent spawning of Christmas trees around the middle of November (Look! Up goes another one!), that by early December is like a rampant, spiky, green plague on all our cities.

I’m talking about words (of course!). Words, and The Recency Illusion*. Also known as the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, but The Recency Illusion sounds less… paranoid? Infectious? Better.

Example: The Interrobang. Until one recent Tuesday, I’d never heard of it. Or I had, but never thought much of it. Now, of course, I can’t understand how I can have made it thus far without such an expressive little punctuation mark. Now, I encounter the interrobang with startling frequency. I see occasion to use it on a day-to-day basis. Eg: “Are you sure?! (Interrobang)”. Not that there are more interrobangs around these days, it’s just that my eyes are now open to them.

Anyway, my latest encounter with The Recency Illusion (everything sounds Grander in Capitals) was caused by the word ‘etiolated‘. Intentionally deprived of sunlight. Blanched, feeble and weakened. Here I would add my own descriptors: limpid, pallid, ghostly, wraithlike. I first came across ‘etiolated’ a couple of months ago in HG Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) where it was used to vividly describe our distant descendants, the Eloi: inept, apathetic, four-foot-high and, most notably, etiolated. And then this week it popped up again in the latest National Geographic (December 2008, ‘Visions of Mars’) where John Updike described the Martians of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950) as ‘etiolated’ (though at the same time ‘brown-skinned’, a contradiction that confuses me).

‘Etiolated’ perfectly describes white asparagus,

{ image via Vegbox }

the Red Queen’s white roses in Alice in Wonderland,

{ From the 1951 Disney film.
Image via CathiefromCanada }
[John Tenniel’s illustrations are of course infinitely better,
but, alas, not in colour]

… and students emerging from that final law exam just before the summer holidays…

Again, I can’t understand how I can have got so far in life without ‘etiolated’ in my lexicographical carpet bag. The thing is, ‘etiolated’ has no doubt crossed my path hundreds of times before — but it took a midnight, moonlit reading of HG Wells to initiate… The Recency Illusion.

* I read about The Recency Illusion under this particular moniker in New Scientist magazine, but no can link: subscription only. Wiki-P will have to do.


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