Deus ex machina:
from Mod.L. translation of Gk. theos ek mekhanes, lit. “the god from the machina,” the device by which “gods” were suspended over the stage in Gk. theater–Online Etymology Dictionary.
I heard an NPR reporter use this expression to refer to a character in the 2001 cult movie Donnie Darko. (Spoiler alert: stop reading now if you don’t want to know the ending.)
Anyone hearing the reporter’s use of the expression would have thought that it was just a fancy way of saying “a supernatural force that saves someone’s life in a story.”
For those who, like me, never heard of Donnie Darko, here’s the story according to a summary on IMDb:
While sleepwalking, a troubled teenager named Donnie Darko meets Frank, a mysterious personage dressed in a diabolical bunny suit. That same night a jet engine crashes into the Darko house, destroying Donnie’s empty bedroom. Donnie feels that he was saved from death by Frank’s supernatural powers. At Frank’s instigation, Donnie commits several vicious acts of vandalism, but in the end, thanks to a time warp, Donnie is killed by the falling jet engine and the vicious acts remain undone.
The NPR reporter called the man in the bunny suit a deus ex machina.
Deus ex machina is a plot device. It is a character or an event introduced at the last minute to save a character or resolve the story. An author uses it because he’s written himself into a corner. It is unexpected and does not arise from the logic of the story up to that point:
The hero’s car is teetering at the edge of a cliff in a remote wilderness. The front wheels are over the abyss and the hero can’t open the door to jump to safety. The hero can do nothing to save himself. Just then, out of the blue, a helpful stranger happens to drive up in a tow truck and pulls car and driver to safety. That’s deus ex machina.
Donnie’s man in the bunny suit does appear suddenly and unexpectedly, but he doesn’t resolve the story. According to the film summary, it was Donnie’s sleepwalking that saved him from being killed by the jet engine. Frank’s appearance begins a chain of events that advance the story. The plot’s resolution, however, arises from its internal logic and occurs when Donnie chooses to drive into the time tunnel.
For some reason the reporter’s inexact use of deus ex machina reminded me of a political reporter’s misuse of the expression “lame duck.”
After the November elections in 1996 I heard a reporter, also on NPR, refer to Bill Clinton as “a lame duck President.”
In political terminology, a “lame duck” is “a public official serving out his term after an election.” The expression is a negative one, conveying the sense that, since the incumbent will soon be out of office, he’s lost all power and influence. Clinton could have appropriately been referred to as a “lame duck President” after the 2000 elections, but not in 1996 when he was preparing for a second term.
It could be argued that both usages described above are “more or less” correct, but with the vast vocabulary at their disposal, people who use words professionally can be more particular.