I recently watched a repeat of a Derren Brown experiment in which he set up a pretend game show, the premise of which was that the audience held the power to vote on whether they wanted something good or bad to happen to an unsuspecting dupe. The name of the show was Remote Control and, being a writer and always chewing over possibilities in my mind, I noticed that removing the initial letter R from the title would leave Emote Control. This play on words could be used to describe someone who controls the emotions of another, and I thought it might be a handy phrase to keep in stock. I Googled it and, as is often the case, I discovered that it has already been used by others. So that was that.
Next morning, I was sitting in the smallest room with The Times Crossword Book 10 balanced on my knee, and I puzzled over the following clue:
Made a scene, given inferior status first off (6)
I rattled the pencil between my teeth as I pondered (I do apologise for the imagery here), and then it came to me. Given inferior status could be demoted, and with the initial letter removed (first off), that would become emoted, certainly a word that could be used to describe someone who was over emotional, or making a scene. So I scrawled in E-M-O-T-E-D.
Here was a word that I have rarely, if ever used before, cropping up twice via independent sources within a few hours. Although it was a little eerie, I felt no alarm; for this was not the first time I had witnessed such a coincidence, and I knew exactly what was afoot: I had encountered the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.
I remember reading some time ago that when we come across a new word or phrase, or one that we rarely use, there is a good chance that we will see or hear it again within a short space of time. Since then I discovered that this bizarre happening is named after the Baader-Meinhof Gang, a German left-wing terrorist group that was active at the back end of the last century. In a column in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, a Minnesota newspaper, a reader mentioned the Baader-Meinhoff Gang in an anecdote about newly discovered words repeating themselves. The reader had heard the gang mentioned twice from independent sources within a short period, so he wrote in to tell of his experience and the phenomenon was born. The strange occurrence also goes by the name of frequency illusion.
What makes the BM phenomenon so intriguing to me is the obscurity of the words or phrases that re-occur. Emote is a word I am sufficiently familiar with to solve a crossword clue, but it does not hold a prominent place in my vocabulary. The following occurrences involve similarly obscure words or phrases.
One night I was in bed reading a book about unsolved murders. In the chapter I was reading, the author stated that the victim’s ancestors had sought refuge in England at the time of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, whatever that was (history was never one of my strong points). The following night, the Edict of Nantes was the answer to a question on Mastermind.
I would say it is a safe bet that I have only ever heard of the Edict of Nantes twice in my lifetime: in that book and on that round of Mastermind.
On another occasion, I posted in a football forum on a thread about a former professional footballer’s personal problems. I used the word, loath, as in ‘he seems loath to seek help’.
This is another word that is stored away in the dark recesses of my vocabulary bank, rarely to see light of day. I even had to check the spelling as I was unsure whether it was ‘loath’ or ‘loth’ (it can be either, as the latter is a variant of the former). After posting, I left the forum and went to bed, but no sooner had I settled down with my book than I read the following passage, uttered by a Colonel Warde:
“I can give certain facts that caused us to have the prisoner arrested, but I should be loath to do that at this period.”
It strikes again.
When I experience the BM phenomenon, I feel slightly creeped out, with a sense of mild paranoia; as though someone, or some thing, is placing these words in front of me as a means of communication. Then normality returns and it dawns on me that the occurrence is nothing more than coincidence.
Still, I hope there are many more examples of the BM phenomenon waiting for me in the future, just to give me that little thrill as I wonder if unseen forces are at work. And for you too – you might come across one of those seldom-used words I encountered soon after reading this. That would be cool.
Have you experienced the BM phenomenon?