Sunday, April 10, 2011


I was re-watching some Futurama last night (for the millionth time, it's my fave), and while listening to the commentary (I really, really love their commentaries), I heard an expression from one of the show's writers: “hang a lantern on it.” Apparently this is a writing term that refers to a specific way to solve a plot problem (particularly one that stems from faulty logic): call attention to that problem in order to suggest it is intentional (like hanging a lantern on a piece of furniture that doesn't go with a room's decor, I guess? I don't know anything about decorating, so I don't quite follow the analogy). Futurama commentaries are great for little bits of trivia like this, and the writers often tell quite interesting anecdotes about how the storyline for a particular episode came to be. For example, David X. Cohen, one of the show's executive producers and the writer of quite a few episodes, mentions during the commentary for an episode that the false ending for that show came about by imagining a storyline that was “just one notch” below the quality of the rest of the series. They were then able to use the “good” storyline to resolve the questions raised by the “bad” storyline.

Anyway, the point is that the phrase “hang a lantern on it” caught my ear—I do like the sound of it—and I did a little poking around on the internet to find out more. This site goes into great detail about the practice and its motivations, but it doesn't mention the part I'm interested in: where did the phrase come from? I'm assuming, of course, that all phrases like this have a literal first embodiment, but hey, it's true about “It was a dark and stormy night,” so why not for this one? I have a particular interest/fascination with this idea of the literal origin of phrases like “hang a lantern on it” after I was told that idea of a “cliché” comes from typesetting, where it referred to commonly used phrases cast as blocks of words rather than as individual letters in order to save time. So, where did “hang a lantern on it” come from? Anyone? Bueller?

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