Grammatically speaking, a cabinet of medical curiosities

To begin the new year, Obiter Dicta takes you on a tour of a cabinet of medical curiosities.

Cabinet of curiosities is an old term used to describe oddities of nature, art, history, religion and other things that people displayed for viewing, often in glass cases. Some of these oddities were so odd, in fact, that they were hoaxes. Think P.T. Barnum. Cabinets of curiosities were especially popular in the Victorian era, though they can be traced back centuries earlier. They were a precursor to the modern museum.

Our cabinet of curiosities at Obiter Dicta is neither museum nor hoax. Rather, it is a sad collection of newspaper writing from the last week of 2009.

The first item in our collection is this wonder from The Lawrence Journal-World: a reference to men and women without spines or backbones. Imagine! Now, for the sake of redundancy, imagine again!

Our next wonder comes from the Op-Ed page of The New York Times: a chest born three months premature! Dangling modifiers will rip the heart out of a good sentence every time.

Finally, we come to this headline from The Topeka Capital-Journal. We include it not for its redundancy or its dangling properties but for its ability to shock with common language.

We at Obiter Dicta had never thought of ordinary tongues as disturbing. Harmless, yes, but never disturbing. But yet, here we were, lump in our throat, wondering whether tongues were on the “out” list in 2010 (that would be disturbing, wouldn’t it?) and what that meant for our tongue.

(Complicating things even further, the writer of Obiter Dicta found himself caught up in the Victorian spirit and was suddenly writing in the first person plural. That wasn’t a problem in itself except that his throat and tongue suddenly became “our throat” and “our tongue,” giving his writing a certain alien connotation and making the writer wonder whether he belonged in a cabinet of medical curiosities. Or perhaps he had just been watching too much “Torchwood.”)

Upon further reading, we found that all tongues are not really disturbing. (Whew!) Rather, black, hairy tongues are disturbing. Hard to disagree with that. We wondered why the headline writer didn’t at least hint at that.

Note to headline writers: Clarity counts.

That ends our brief grammatical tour of the Obiter Dicta cabinet of medical curiosities. If you’d care to delve further into cabinets of curiosity, we suggest starting with sites like Sideshow World and the Joukowsky Institute. If you are really intrigued, try the novel The Cabinet of Curiosities by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. If you have not met Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast, you should.

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