Alliteration has no right to work as well as it does
Irene Wong makes a case for us to use alliteration in our work.
My mother wanted to name me Georgina Goodes. Worried that the alliteration would be a burden on me, she settled on Irene, a soft sounding Greek name meaning peace. Would Georgina have been a burden? Has an alliterative name been a burden for Bridgitte Bardot, Greta Garbo, Adam Ant, Tiny Tim, Kim Kardashian, Janet Jackson or Janis Joplin? The clever combination of sounds calls attention to these names and fixes them in our memories. Therefore, I was delighted in the mid 1990s to grab myself a new global identity: WongWord@...
In summary, alliteration ‘is a stylistic device in which a number of words, having the same first consonant sound, occur close together in a series’1.
Hundreds of English professors and linguists have written about using exactly the right word or name. But I prefer to quote the plain language of Dr Frank Luntz, word adviser to right-wing America, who says, “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear”.
In his book, unsurprisingly entitled Words that work2, Luntz’s rule 6 is that ‘sound and texture matter’. He claims that repeated letters, sounds or syllables appeal more to our emotions and are more memorable than a random mix of sounds. For example, he recommends: ‘exploring for energy’ because it appeals to the ear as well as sounding cleaner and more desirable than ‘drilling for oil’; and ‘climate change’3 instead of the more frightening ‘global warming’.
Alliteration can intensify the meaning, effectiveness and persuasiveness of words by creating the right atmosphere. But not all letters produce the same acoustic impact and mood. Compare, for example, the relatively peaceful sounds of l, f, h and e with the harsh and blunter p, b, m, n, t, d, k and g.
In Word painting4, Rebecca McClanahan says that “our words must reinforce their imagistic and emotional content”.
This is not only true in fiction, nonfiction and poetry, it is vital in branding, where the memorability and mood are critical. There are naming consultants to help you name your latest product or service. Alliteration is one of their popular tools.
Children are attracted to Barbie, Tonka Toys, Tim Tams and Coca-Cola. They love the playfulness of word sounds and immediately remember the rhymes about she who sells sea shells and Peter’s pepper. The repeated sounds add rhythm, almost music to text. Authors have targeted this love with alliterative character names such as: Digit Dick; Peter Pan; Bathsheda Babbling, Gellert Grindelwald and Dedalus Diggle (in Harry Potter books); and Willy Wonka. And of course there are the unforgettable sounds of Dr Seuss.
Don’t brush off alliteration thinking that it is just a branding and advertising trick to seduce children.
We use BlackBerries, Samsung, Google, Twitter, PowerPoint, Range Rover, Weight Watchers, PayPal, You Tube, Alcoholics Anonymous and the world wide web. We are attracted to the sounds of names, we remember them and are sucked in by the emotion, mood and images they create in our brains.
Alliteration is also used to add humour and sarcasm. Newspaper headline writers, journalists and politicians seem to have a knack of effectively combining common sounds to drive home a point or embarrass an opponent.
Alliteration should only be used sparingly, and never included for its own sake. It must not be forced or contrived. It must serve the content and purpose of the text and make it memorable, intense, persuasive, funny, or emotional. It should never divert attention away from the content and purpose.
So do Thea Astley’s words in Coda about the ages of women, “Bimbo, breeder, baby-sitter, burden”, succeed?
A lesser writer may have chosen trendy words and adorned them with exclamation marks or emoticons. But Astley relies on alliteration in simple words for maximum impact.
When I first heard the description of the four ages of women I was immediately struck by the alliteration and the passion and suffering expressed by four common words. Astley’s words ooze pathos. To fully understand the words I realised I must read the book.
Before reading Coda I had consulted Pyrotechnics on the page5 a book about teaching children to write. In it Ralph Fletcher says that when we are reading a piece of writing we may encounter pyrotechnics that make us ooh and aah. He suggests using alliteration to secure such gasps of surprise. I thought his suggestion of comparing alliterative words to fireworks was an exaggeration.
However, after reading Coda, I agree with his description. Until this point in the book Kathleen, the leading character, had not complained about her family who had disappointed and mistreated her. She had only spoken to her friend Daisy about them. She had silently suffered and put up with her children’s failings and demands. But the last straw was when her daughter started telling her she must inspect a retirement home as well as demanding her babysitting services for another weekend.
Kathleen spat out, “bimbo, breeder, baby-sitter, burden”. The words came out of the blue. They summarised The guide to grandmothering, the book that Kathleen wanted to write.
“There’s a limit, Kathleen decided, angry too late, to the amount of work families can squeeze from the withering muscles of grandmothers.”
The words demonstrate what Richard Lanham6 says in Analyzing prose about alliteration:
This powerful glue can connect elements without logical relationship. Because alliteration does work so well, because we acknowledge the ‘rightness’ of ‘fate's fickle finger’ with a part of our mind not under logical control, people have always resented alliteration and tried to outlaw it. It has no right to work as well as it does.
Language is full of these chance resemblances of sound and spelling and prose stylists have always capitalized on them, used them to suggest a natural affinity between objects or concepts which logically possessed none.
This attribute of alliteration can be practically employed to lift a dull piece of non-fiction. For example, the five words slip, slop, slap, seek and slide are world famous and together create a new meaning: protect yourself against skin cancer.
Coincidentally, on the same day I first heard Astley’s alliterative words on women, the 2015 winner of the Sackler Center First Award at the Brooklyn Museum, New York was announced. This annual feminism event honours extraordinary women who are first in their fields.
Knowing that artful alliteration is always appreciated, the latest winner spoke about feminism. She said its future must “be proud, positive, powerful, perseverant, and, wherever possible, alliterative”.
The 2015 award winner? Miss Piggy, ‘the persevering porcine pioneer of the arts…’7
Published in Southern Communicator
About the author
Irene regularly presented at ASTC conferences. Since retiring after 20 years with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, she has maintained her interest in communicating. She has written for an online style guide, and helps friends and family who want a few quick comments on what they have written or advice on what they are about to write.
Irene is the only ‘non-fiction’ member of her local creative writing group in northern Sydney which comprises nine retired women and one working man who flies in and out of WA. Irene brings her writing experience to this piece which she presented to the group. It was in response to a quote from Coda written by Thea Astley.
The aging woman in the story is unhappy with how her children have always treated her and says at one stage that the four stages of a woman's life are "bimbo, breeder, babysitter and burden". These four words were the writing topic.
1 LiteraryDevices Editors. “Alliteration” LiteraryDevices.net. 2015. (accessed 6 June 2015).
2 F Luntz, Words that work, Hyperion Books, 2007, pp16–18
3 Some people say that climate change is not alliterative.
4 R McClanahan, Word Painting: a guide to writing more descriptively, Writer’s Digest Books, 1999, pp42–43
5 Ralph Fletcher, Pyrotechnics on the page, Stenhouse Publishers, 2010. p114
6 R Lanham, ‘Tacit persuasion patterns’ Extract from Analyzing prose, Literary theory: An anthology, 2nd ed, ed J Rivkin and M Ryan, Blackwell Publishing, 2004
7 (accessed February 2017)