Neville Goodman’s Metaphor Watch: Explosion? Usually barely a puff

neville_goodmanThere are about 10000 explosions in PubMed®. There are dust explosions, gas explosions, explosion injuries. In the last year, there have been 11 reports of electronic cigarette explosions. As I write, the media are getting a bit “dangerous dog” about it, without mentioning the number of people who burned themselves and their relatives to death in house fires caused by cigarettes. What’s more, the main risk is carrying batteries with bare terminals in a pocket. But that’s the media for you: all story, no context.

If you type explosion into PubMed’s search box, a dropdown list appears that includes gas, steam, blast, and dust explosions, but also bladder and colonic explosions. Horrified, I discovered 37 bladder explosions. Although a few were because the two words occurred, unconnected, in the same abstract, there were plenty of literal explosions happening during transurethral resections. Patients have died after colonic explosions during colonoscopic polypectomy, which gives the lie to “non-invasive surgery”, but PubMed’s “colonic explosion” list includes an explosion of new agents, an explosion of genomic data, an explosion of knowledge, and many other metaphorical explosions.

Some metaphorical explosions are well established: the Cambrian “explosion” was, in evolutionary terms, a rapid event—it occupied 10-25 million years about 530 million years ago. Geologists are happy to admit that, ‘The term ‘explosion’ may be a bit of a misnomer. Cambrian life did not evolve in the blink of an eye.”

Because that’s the thing about explosions: they occur in the blink of an eye. They really are rapid events. And despite all the best action movies having the hero hurtle along a tunnel just ahead of the fire and flames, it ain’t possible. So it is hyperbole to write of explosions if all you mean is that biologists are becoming more interested in cell adhesion processes, or that the development of digital cameras has enabled more medical specialties to use images.

Explosion attracts two limpet adjectives (qv) that are antonyms: virtual and veritable. There has been “a veritable explosion of potential vaccine designs”, “a veritable explosion of research into treatments for bipolar disorder”; “a virtual explosion of data on the molecular biology and function of osteocytes” in the last decade, and the discovery of hepcidin “triggered a virtual explosion of studies on iron metabolism.”

A search on osteocyte/s found 159 PubMed articles in 2005, and 435 in 2013 (the peak year so far). This 2.7-fold increase is reduced to a 1.7-fold increase when it is corrected for the total number of PubMed articles. Hepcidin was first described in 2000. In 2005, there were nearly 100 articles. By 2015, that had increased 3.2-fold, reduced by correction to 1.8-fold. Although there were 1.4 times as many articles retrieved by “iron metabolism” in 2015 as in 2005, correction for the total number of articles makes this a relative decrease.

Writers use explosion to underline topicality and excitement. They write explosion to show their enthusiasm for their subject, and to suggest to others that it’s the place to be. Perhaps it’s churlish to complain but when, demonstrably, some explosions are little more than a puff, it is easy to be cynical. But we know they are not real explosions, so virtual is unnecessary, and veritable is wrong.

Neville Goodman is a retired consultant anaesthetist and a writer. He is co-author of a book on medical English.

Competing interests: I have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and declare that my only competing interest is my co-authorship of a book about medical English.