So I’m lying on the couch watching TV, as I am wont to do. And every so often, I watch an ad for the new film “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People,” based on the book by Toby Young, which I have not read, and starring Simon Pegg, whom I find extraordinarily funny. These ads have been running for a week or so now. I don’t know if I will go see this movie. I might; I might not. I just don’t know. But I DO know that every time I see the ad, I get a LITTLE MORE IRRITATED by the fact that the voiceover that says the name of the film at the end EMPHASIZES THE WRONG WORD.
The title of the film, which is also the title of the book, is what we call a “how-to” phrase.
The syntax of this particular phrase is such that, when spoken in the conventional English idiom, the stress falls thus: “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.”
I think I understand why. The words emphasized are the ones that this particular handbook—if it were, in fact, a handbook and not a memoir entitled comically as if it were a handbook, the joke being that no one in his right mind would deliberately fashion himself after this protagonist—anyway, that this handbook targets. What do you want to lose? FRIENDS. What do you want to do to people? ALIENATE THEM. This is, in fact, crucial to the humor of the title, because these are precisely the things that normal, socially competent people do not want to lose nor do to people.
The voice in the advertisements, however, says, “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.”
I think I understand why. It is repeating the stress pattern of the first phrase—it turns both phrases into iambs. But this disrupts the sense. It DOESN’T MAKE SENSE. It suggests that this handbook—if it were, in fact, a handbook and not a film titled after a book entitled comically as if it were a handbook—that this handbook would teach you how to focus all those alienation skills on—what?—people. This is a joke that simply doesn’t work. A handbook that teaches you how to “alienate people” is funny because it is the opposite of the kind of handbook a sane person (well, by American self-help cultural standards) would buy: “How to Be Nice To People,” How to Please People,” “How to Win The Hearts And Minds Of People.” A handbook that teaches you how to “alienate people” is funny in contrast to what? Books on “How to Alienate Goats“? “How to Alienate Inanimate Objects“? “How to Alienate Aliens“?
No. None of these makes any freaking sense.
Of course, as you are already thinking, I am overthinking this. But the point is that I don’t even need to think about it because I SPEAK THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE. When I say, “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People,” my words naturally fall into place: “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.” Iamb followed by trochee. Perhaps “Lose Friends” is a spondee, both syllables stressed evenly. That makes sense too, and it sounds perfectly natural. But I have tried these phrases over and over and not once has my English-speaking tongue naturally uttered “alienate people.” Because it DOESN’T MAKE SENSE.
And this is how I am spending my Thursday afternoon.