Original slipped mask?
August 16, 2008 11:43 PM   Subscribe

Where does the "mask fell off" expression/meme from this comment come from, if anywhere?

Google gives 13 300 for "mask fell" and 11 300 for "mask slipped", and if you look at the context in the first page of hits from both of those links they're all using it in the same sense.

Specifically, "the latex mask fell off and we get to stare directly into the machine's dead eyes" reminds me of Terminator or something? Is this an intentional reference or is this just a very common image of a robot/android? It sort of feels like half a Terminator reference but equally half not.

It sort of seems like it's almost too common to have an identifiable origin, but it's just specific enough that it might have a really satisfing "a-ha" one.

posted by skwt to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Phantom of the Opera, I think.
posted by Class Goat at 11:46 PM on August 16, 2008

You know, it is possible for people to come up with original turns of phrase and metaphors on their own.
posted by delmoi at 11:50 PM on August 16, 2008

Response by poster: You know . . .

True, but what I'm saying is that my linguistic intuitions and the Google results say "mask slipped/fell" is an established expression, and I'm wondering if it has an identifiable origin.
posted by skwt at 12:05 AM on August 17, 2008

From Lucretius' De Rerum Natura:

Quo magis in dubiis hominem spectare periclis
convenit adversisque in rebus noscere qui sit;
nam verae voces tum demum pectore ab imo
eliciuntur et eripitur persona, manet res.

So it is more useful to watch a man in times of peril, and in adversity to discern what kind of man he is; for then at last words of truth are drawn from the depths of his heart, and the mask is torn off, reality remains.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 12:15 AM on August 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

I would think that for as long as there have been masks there have been the possibilities of finding out the identities behind them, usually via slippage or reveal. However, the word "mask" entered the english language in 1343, according to the OED. But this would not mean that the concept didn't previously exist in other languages, or even before humans had words for it. If you are looking for the date of the first usage of the phrase "mask slipped off" and the like, you might want to find someone who has access to historical corpora archives. As far as its usage in the comment above, I think its just a brilliant juxtaposition of two very strong culturally relevant metaphors–calling many references to mind at once, with no one thing being dominant, which is sometimes what good metaphors do.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:20 AM on August 17, 2008

er, first printed and documented usage (not spoken usage).
posted by iamkimiam at 12:21 AM on August 17, 2008

Ugh. First documented usage, not necessarily printed.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:23 AM on August 17, 2008

Westworld close enough?
posted by yort at 12:25 AM on August 17, 2008

"the mask fell off" is a pretty common thing, but a mask falling off to reveal a robot isn't a very common metaphor.
posted by delmoi at 12:38 AM on August 17, 2008

Best answer: Well, some GBooks poking around finds nothing really helpful. As ntoed, masks falling away are an obvious metaphor and indeed they appear as early as Cervantes and Dumas. There may be an artifact of the GBooks database, but the expression "mask fell off" or particularly "when the mask fell off" seems particularly popular in the late 19th century, dropping off after the early 1900s.

I found an almost identical usage in last year's This is London:
At that point the warm and friendly human mask slipped to reveal the whirring gears of the profit making machine that lurks behind.

And along the way I turned up this not entirely relevant but otherwise interesting essay on the mask as metaphor peaking in the same time period for cultural reasons.
The persistent mask theme--present throughout literary history--manifests itself in a rather bleak way during the early 20th century. In a godless world, it became the job of the artist to create meaning out of modern chaos, to find identity during a time when it seemed that the machine was becoming more valuable than the autonomous human being. We can see a progression of thought from the "face fetish" of the 1800's to a "mask fetish" at the turn of the century, eventually leading to depictions of facelessness, where the hope for man to have the opportunity to assert himself as an individual seemed unlikely.

There may be a literary antecedent for the robot imagery. In Evelyn Waugh's Men at Arms he wrote a phrase which developed some fame:
He [had] expected his country to go to war in a panic, for the wrong reasons, or for no reason at all, with the wrong allies, in pitiful weakness. But now, splendidly, everything had become clear. The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in Arms. Whatever the outcome, there was a place for him in that battle.

That said, I suspect that almost any modern usage owes some debt to Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death", in which a mask is torn off to reveal an empty costume.
posted by dhartung at 1:49 AM on August 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

This feels really weird. I'm a literary critic and I'm usually the one speculating about the origins of peoples' turns of phrase.

It's just a metaphor. I was thinking about all those television anchors who are so blandly pleasing to the eye, and how they represent a really soulless and amoral institution. The metaphor of the mask over the machine just seemed apropos, I guess.
posted by felix betachat at 6:25 AM on August 17, 2008

Sorry, that said, the idea behind the comment isn't that new. People have been lamenting about the loss of the human element in the face of collectives ever since they started collectivizing. It wouldn't surprise me to see that others had said this before.
posted by felix betachat at 6:30 AM on August 17, 2008

Well, what else could a mask do besides fall or slip? I think people are simply describing something that happens in real life using pretty simple verbs. (The mask tumbled!)
posted by Solon and Thanks at 10:13 AM on August 17, 2008

it reminds me of that movie "they live."
posted by fillsthepews at 1:20 PM on August 17, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks, dhartung and others, for those cites. It seems like maybe it's more of a "too common to have an identifiable origin" thing than a "particular reference" thing.

But interesting to hear what it made other people think of.

And just to be clear, felix betachat, I wasn't at all trying to depreciate the value of your writing; I think it's a great line, and wasn't trying to call it 'unoriginal' or something.

Can you see how I thought of Terminator though?
posted by skwt at 5:14 PM on August 17, 2008

Oh, no worries. I didn't think that at all. There's very little that's truly original anyway.

Thinking about it some more, the Terminator idea is not a bad one. There's also this. Both of those films had a big impact on me as a kid, so I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't exert some subconscious influence on my choice of imagery.
posted by felix betachat at 6:11 PM on August 17, 2008

Best answer: I'm pretty sure there is a Bill Hicks routine, possibly from Rant in E Minor, where he uses some really similar if not identical turn of phrase (containing both "latex mask" and "machine's dead eyes"). He may have been quoting somebody, but I'm almost certain he said it.
posted by arcanecrowbar at 10:50 PM on August 17, 2008

Response by poster: arcanecrowbar: yeah, that sounds extremely familiar. That might have been what I was thinking of actually.
posted by skwt at 10:20 AM on August 18, 2008

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