All Hands on Deck: Summer Internships, Back in the Day

My son, a chemistry student, enjoyed laboratory internships last summer and the summer before to gain research experience, and he's now putting in his applications for this year. His experiences remind me of my own summer internships as an English major in the mid-1980s. Between my sophomore and junior years of college, I interned at a laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, investigating cliché reduction. My lab partners and I had two projects. In one, we attempted to alter airborne clichés so that they would bind to water molecules in the atmosphere and fall to earth as rain. In the other, we beta-tested special lanterns, similar to bug zappers, called Electrical Discharge Banality Control Systems. They attracted flying clichés with violet and ultraviolet light, drawing them into a high-voltage grid that electrocuted the hackneyed phrases with a crackle I found very satisfying. (Alas, the zappers never went to market.)

The following summer I landed a position at the USC's Center for Figurative Language. My job was to spread thin layers of literal language on glass slides and heat them in a special chamber to transform them into similes. Down the hall, more experienced students worked with the Metonymizer, an enormous contraption that would substitute a part for a whole. It gave off sparks and a great deal of noise; you had to wear both eye and ear protection when generating metonymy. Also, everything had to be perfectly sterile; otherwise, instead of producing a phrase like "all hands on deck," the Metonymizer would spit out something like "all hands on ass." We did good work in those labs. Still, so far as I can tell, the language researchers of my generation have not managed to improve the world's turns of phrases, nor diminish its use of platitudes. Sometimes I still dream of getting an electrical discharge lantern to hang on my back porch. I'd like to spend a summer evening lobbing millennial truisms its way--"poster child," "perfect storm," "think outside the box"--and listening to them sizzle as they die.

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