Is there life on Mars?

Posted by on May 16, 2011

‘Welcome to Planet Osborne’ was the headline of a news report a few weeks ago, when the UK’s finance minister, George Osborne, presented his budget plans. This formula (planet + noun) is common in the names of stores, websites, or other entities devoted to a particular activity – you see things like Planet Dance (a dancewear retailer), Planet Rock (a radio station), and Planet Politics (an online forum for political junkies). It is modelled of course on the expression ‘Planet Earth’, and can usually be paraphrased (using a similar metaphor) as ‘the world of …’.

But it’s not quite that simple. If you are on ‘Planet X’, you are completely absorbed in activity X, as in this example from our corpus:

Although I had spent an entire year on ‘Planet wedding’ … buying every wedding magazine and devouring their contents, I still didn’t have the answers.

Being so absorbed in something that you’re unaware of what’s going on elsewhere is like being in a world of your own. And it’s a short step from here to suggesting that someone like this is not fully in touch with reality. This is the underlying message of the ‘Planet Osborne’ headline: the article that followed implied that Osborne’s view of the economic situation didn’t correspond to what was happening ‘in the real world’. And whenever planet is used with the name of a person, it seems to carry this implication. A recent review of Tony Blair’s memoirs had the heading ‘Life on Planet Blair’, and again this formula was employed to suggest that the book told its own idiosyncratic story.

The same idea – that someone’s version of reality isn’t the same as everyone else’s – crops up in other planet-based expressions:

I don’t know what planet Ben comes from, but in the US, to qualify for Social Security you have to be starving.
How anyone could be so daft as to listen to a word he says is beyond me. The guy lives on a different planet.
When it comes to food in the UK , you would have to be on another planet not to realise that consumers are becoming more health conscious.

This invokes a metaphor which is pervasive in English and other languages: the notion that someone who behaves strangely or has odd ideas is like a being from another world. (A ‘metaphor box‘ in Macmillan Dictionary explains how this works.) Variations on this theme can be found in expressions like these:

Getting rid of waste altogether sounds like pie in the sky, but is, in fact, quite simple.
‘Little Britain’ is a small and surreal parallel universe, peopled by over-the-top eccentrics, lunatics and social misfits.
For anyone who has been living on Mars for the past week or so, England ace Wayne Rooney is absent thanks to his much-publicised foot injury.
“Hello? Earth to Alex!!” Meghan said, snapping her fingers in front of my face and waving her hand to get my attention.

And when someone abandons a crazy idea, the response might be a slightly ironic ‘Welcome to the real world’!

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