I spy… ‘Tis the season to be..hunting?

In New Scientist, 26 Nov. 2016

Joshua Sokol reports on the latest efforts to find planets that can support life, and that are similar to Earth’s life-sustaining conditions. There are quite a few intriguing linguistic observations to be made. We will examine both the similarities and differences in the print and online versions of this article.

The print version is riddled with war/violence metaphors:

the hunt for alien life

“if we found any signal (signature of water, methane or ammonia in the atmosphere of the plant) then we would hit this pair [of planets] extremely hard with James Webb [the James Webb Space Telescope]” Benneke says. “There‘s no doubt about that”.

Note a number of interesting linguistic features in the quote above. Firstly, hunt and hit+noun are metaphors. Their literal meanings are to search and focus on, respectively. What could an interpretation for this lexical choice be? Let’s continue to examine what kind of participants (see underlined) are connected to these verbs. We, refers to the team of researchers, humans. The transitive verb hit is followed by this pair, a goal participant. This is deixis for the previously discussed planets who are referred to like people.

Similarly, the online version employs metaphors of war and personification, starting with the title:

Hubble rounds up the first worlds

a well-behaved planet


Round up comes from the military world: a systematic gathering together of people or things, and has negative prosody. Having a look at the BNC (British National Corpus) on Lancaster University’s CQPweb, we find many example of round up in negative context. Round up‘s third most frequent collocation is with preposition to:

forced their commanders to detach valuable troops to round up the raiding parties

began to round up the usual suspect


From this short linguistic analysis we could surmise that humanity’s initial approach to finding life has not altered much from the days of imperialistic colonization: aggression, violence and greed are dominant in this account, much like on Earth itself. Humanity should cure itself of these ills and reallocate the exorbitant resources to tackle existing problems close to home, before infecting and spreading its symbolic pox onto other worlds.

The author is willing to remove any content that may infringe on copyrights

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