Monday, September 08, 2008

Feeding frenzy

Mitch from Florida writes, "Do you have an entry on feeding frenzy? I am seeing that in the newspapers recently."

It’s probably because of Sarah Palin, Republic Vice-Presidential candidate.

The original feeding frenzy was the frantic and aggressive attack on prey by groups of sharks, leading to thrashing and writhing bodies in bloody waters. It was a group smorgasbord. The first instance given by the Oxford English Dictionary is 1960 [T. Lineweaver in Sports Illustrated, 22 Feb. 61/2] : "When sharks are in a feeding frenzy, the man who hangs too close to the surface to grimace, may lose his head -- face, grimace and all." (If anyone has an earlier citation, I'd appreciate hearing about it.)

Sharks gather when they smell the blood or the stress hormones of potential prey. Research shows that sharks are able to respond to one part blood for every one million parts of water; this is like being able to smell one teaspoon of chocolate syrup in a swimming pool.

Eventually, it became a figure of speech for aggressive competition or rivalry, or for exploitation by journalists when they sense a story about to emerge -- they smell blood in the water. The first instance of this figurative use found in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1972 [Science 7 Apr. 33/3] : "It would be rash to take them [sc. proposed alterations to pollution legislation] as evidence of a coherent movement to cripple the law. But what worries that a feeding frenzy may develop among federal agencies once a few loopholes have been opened in the law."

The phrase is now considered a cliche.

SIDEBAR: videotape of feeding frenzy

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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