Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Ice Cream Truck Reflex

    Hapax legomenon is Greek -- well, the Latinized form of Greek, ἅπαξ λεγόμενον, meaning "thing once said."
    It's an obscure literary term referring to words that appear once in the whole swoop of literature, or once within an author's oeuvre. I learned it while reading Dante commentary -- scholars sometimes refer to words that appear just once in the 14,233 lines of The Divine Comedy as being "hapax."
    For example. In Robert and Jean Hollander's fine translation of Paradiso, the 97th line of the 32nd canto, Rispuose a la divina cantilena -- "From every side the blessed court all sang" — is explained by a lengthy note beginning, "The word cantilena, a hapax, would seem to refer specifically to Gabriel's song..." and going on to observe that Dante seems to have coined the word.
     I began writing yesterday's column about solar eclipse being a big deal in Carbondale—a city named for the coal found therein—with a digression explaining hapax, as a prelude to explaining a phenomenon I call the "Ice Cream Truck Reflex."
    The Ice Cream Truck Reflex is when you hear the distant tinkling of an ice cream truck, the grating melody of "Turkey in the Straw" or "Pop Goes the Weasel" or whatever, and feel an overwhelming impulse to grab change -- or I guess now, a few bills -- and run buy ice cream novelties. 
    The phenomenon has an especially powerful hold over children, transforming them from summer calm immediately into frantic, pleading panic by the approach of the truck. The moment to act is now! But even an adult who might draw back in horror at the prospect of paying $9 for a a half dozen Fudgicles at Sunset Foods, pulling their hand away as if the box were on fire, will eagerly shell out $1.50 for the same pop in front of a big white boxy truck. Better that than to lose your one chance.
     It is a term that I think of when people are driven to extremes by ephemeral situations -- those paying $500 a night to go to Carbondale, for instance, to see a solar eclipse. (Which I am a little reluctant to pooh-pooh, solar eclipses supposedly a superlative natural wonder. I'll know more in August).
    A better example was the Millennium, when people felt obligated to hie themselves to the Pyramids, or shell out some fortune to usher in the 21st century (setting aside the tiresome argument of when that actually began) because it only comes around once in life.
   Something fleeting, something happening once, or rarely. It mesmerizes us. Not realizing that every moment happens once, and many things occur rarely.
   Before using the term, I was curious as to where "Ice Cream Truck Reflex" came from, and plugged the term into Google. Up popped one hit, a kind of Google hapax. When does that happen? 
    Turns out I mentioned the Ice Cream Truck Reflex, in a column in 2010. The paper doesn't keep its columns up that long, but some news aggregator caught it. One reference. And that's it. 
    I decided that my comment on hapax legomenon and the Ice Cream Truck Reflex, though far shorter than this, was too much for a column of 669 words purportedly about solar eclipse opportunism in Carbondale.
    And besides, maybe it'll upset that annoying reader who keeps harping about the state budget.
    It's neat to coin a term as useful as the Ice Cream Truck Reflex, and odd to think that on Friday there was one result. I wonder how quickly it'll spread, or if it will spread. Anyway, a useful concept to keep in your intellectual tool box. When presented with a fleeting opportunity, you can ask: is this something I want, or something I feel compelled to do because the chance is here in front of me now? A lot of people don't ask that question, to their eventual misfortune. 


  1. It's $3 per item,at least in some suburbs. It was just 2.50 last summer.

  2. An interesting coinage. And an opportunity to introduce an unfamiliar word. And for me, an opportunity through association to learn something new. The term made me think of the familiar saying "strike while the iron's hot." Which I always assumed referred simply to the common wisdom of the blacksmith, but, so Mr. Google informs, came from an advertising slogan adopted by a one-time blacksmith in 18th Century Gretna Greene who took to marrying English couples escaping over the border seeking a quick union.

    Similarly, yesterday's piece about viewing an eclipse brought to mind death, which, according to M. La Rouchfoucould's maxim "like the sun cannot be stared at."

    One thing often leads to another when reading Neil.


  3. It's neat to create a unique phrase. Bitter Scribe came up with a good one for the fall of Bob Greene. I have a penchant for euphemisms, and like to rephrase vulgar expressions, or leave a vulgar word out.

  4. For a while, I had my kids thinking those trucks were The Music Man, just driving around playing tunes. When they got older and figured it out, they realized not much had been missed. The Schwann Man had much better treats, plus he had pizza.

  5. Not every parent is as benign as you about ice cream trucks.

    Why Bernie, thank you! This almost makes me forget all the times you've managed to irritate me.

  6. A specialized form of your Google hapax is the googlewhack, a two-word Google search that returns exactly one result. Finding them became a short-lived game in the early days of googling.

  7. This is a bygone era when kids used to play outside all day, and the ice cream truck rolling by was a special treat.


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