Man Bites Dog

A man has bitten a dog in Cambridge.

sir-john-nelthorpe-6th-baronet-out-shooting-with-his-dogs-in-barton-field-lincolnshire-1776

This means, of course that the journalists’ favourite story has finally happened – sadly I suppose, since in this case it ended in the death of the man who bit the dog – thus satisfying in some way the law of averages and outliers.

From what I can gather, very early in the morning two days ago, in an eastern suburb of Cambridge (very close to where I live) a man got into an altercation (a word only used by the police and journalists, I think) with another man, and for some reason bit that man’s dog. It seems the dog-biter was found a few minutes later in a convenience store (the OneStop, in Fen Ditton, where I can remember buying a box of cereal and a packet of crisps on one occasion), lying dead. Several men were then arrested on various charges. No word of the dog.

That is so far all we know.

Man Bites Dog is an aphoristic headline in journalism, used to point up the predilection in newsrooms the world over for unusual stories. Dog Bites Man does not get into the paper; Man Bites Dog makes the front page (of the Cambridge Evening News, at any rate). The phrase has been variously ascribed to any number of early twentieth century newsmen, prominent among them Alfred Harmsworth (1865-1922), a British newspaper magnate.

It is worth pointing out two things in this connection: first, English is highly sensitive to word order. A word very frequently takes its function from its position in the sentence, and not from any morphological marker. And second, we have difficulty processing and recalling high-frequency events, and no difficulty whatever remembering low-frequency events, and this tends to distort our perception of the likelihood of any given event happening, as Dan Gilbert explains in the following video (he doesn’t mention men biting dogs, but he does talk about people dying in tornadoes).

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