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Time magazine (May 27) reported that Mrs. Obama accused House Republicans of their weakening school nutritional standards at White House meeting with school leaders and experts.

I was drawn to the difference of headlines of the same article in Time homepage, where it reads:

“Michelle Obama eats health critics for lunch,”

and the text page where it reads:

“Michelle Obama bites back at critics of her healthy school lunch standards,” followed by the lead copy;

"In one of the most political speeches she’s given, Michelle Obama accused House Republicans of “playing politics” with “our children’s future”,

then goes on;

The First Lady slammed Republicans on Tuesday for trying to weaken school nutritional standards, one of her key policy achievements. She called it "unacceptable to me not just as First Lady but also as a mother" http://time.com/120611/michelle-obama-school-lunches/

I was also intrigued to know that “eat” and “bite back” are used to mean “slam,” “accuse,” or “counterattack,” then questions arose:

  1. Is it normal to use “eat” and “bite” as a metaphoric alternative to “slam / accuse/ criticize”? Is it a cute figure of speech?
  2. Why did Time change the wording of the headline from “Michelle Obama eats health critics” in its home page to “Michelle Obama bites back at critics” in the text page? – though this could be answered only by the article writer.

    Could you provide me an answer?

Addendum:

By posting this question, I was alert to the usage of “eat / bite” and found the following examples this week.

  • “What eats at me the most is the 80 dead people I had in my command over my three tours, that eats at me a hell of a lot. –Daniel Bolger, ex-Army lieutenant general.” - Time magazine. - May 22, 2014

  • “Capitalism Eating Its Children”-NYT Op-ed columnist, Roger Cohen. NYT May 29 2014.

Though these may sound quite commonplace to native English speakers as indicated by low view on this question, it's amusing for me to find a variety of the usage of ‘eat / bite.”

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    Your example does not mean accuse/slam when it says eat/bite. – Oldcat May 28 '14 at 0:00
  • Whew! From your title I thought for a moment you'd discovered John Valby. – Jim May 28 '14 at 0:43
  • @Oldcat. Time article says clearly “Mrs. Obama accused House Republicans,” and “The First Lady slammed Republicans” in my quotes. – Yoichi Oishi May 28 '14 at 0:58
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    Unfortunately, using "eats for lunch" and "bites back" in headlines about a nutrition controversy passes for cleverness at Time magazine, as at many other periodicals. The purpose of each headline is simply to "capture eyeballs"—to attract more readers (or link clickers) than would have bothered to read the story if it had had a straightforward headline—and presumably Time's editors felt that two lame idioms associated with eating were better than one for that purpose. They probably also considered "First Lady Finds Critics Hard to Swallow" and "Feast or Famine on Nutrition Standards." – Sven Yargs May 28 '14 at 1:15
  • Idioms! Needs some homework. – Kris May 28 '14 at 4:59
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Both sentences you cite are simply playing on the subject of the article being related to food and eating.

To eat someone for lunch means to "defeat or deal with someone easily."

To bite back means "react angrily."

To slam in a journalistic sense means to "criticize severely."

As you can see, the terms aren't metaphorical equivalents or alternatives; "eat for lunch" and "bite back" were simply somewhat playful uses of common expressions that related to the subject being about school lunches.

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In this context, to "eat [someone] for [breakfast|dinner|lunch]" means to deal with someone, particularly with aggression. It gives the impression that the person doing the eating is stronger and more powerful than the person they are metaphorically eating.

It doesn't necessarily mean to "slam", "accuse", or "criticise", though that might be part of the dealing with the person.

To "bite back" means to retort, respond, or retaliate.

The headline is stating that Michelle Obama is not allowing the health critics to get away with whatever they are criticising her for.

The text goes on to further explain that she has responded to their criticism, by "biting back".

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It is a common idiom to say "eat >something< for breakfast" although it does not necessarily mean to deal with >something< very easily and most certainly does not mean slam/accuse/attack/criticize. Indeed, as seen in this example:

“You know, I eat your kind for breakfast back home. Has it ever occurred to you that I have not ever been scared of you for a single second of the Games?”

it is more commonly an indication of a complete lack of fear, of confidence that >something< poses minimal, if any threat. I've always understood it as a metaphor comparing the threat that >something< poses to how easy obtaining breakfast has to be, since people tend to be rather groggy after just having woken up.

Replacing "breakfast" with "lunch", another common meal of the day, is simply a change to the idiom that is presumably relevant to some incident/thing discussed in the article, perhaps one of Michelle Obama's dietary initiatives (about which I know very little).

It does, however, carry the implication that some manner of threat or challenge was made by >something<, as this idiom is generally used in response to such a statement, and does carry a fairly aggressive connotation.

I would certainly describe it as more aggressive than the also common idiom "bite back", which as I've always heard it generally means a direct response to an antagonizing prompt - think of how dogs respond to being bullied and the expression "all bark, no bite"(again, slam/attack/accuse/criticize are poor choices of words to capture the meaning of the idiom, as they do not capture the retaliatory nature of the response being described).

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2 a :  to destroy, consume, or waste by or as if by eating <expenses ate up the profits> <gadgets that eat up too much space>

(http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/eat)

By this definition, I don't think it's much of a stretch to use it that way, though I've never heard it before. Most likely they wanted to make a connection between the topic (food) and the headline, which is understandable.

I have no idea why there is a difference between the website and the text, especially since I don't have a copy of the text. My only guess would be that "eats" is shorter than "bites back at," and maybe they needed to make the headline short enough to fit on the printed page?

  • You can access the text of the article with time.com/120611/michelle-obama-school-lunches – Yoichi Oishi May 28 '14 at 1:08
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    @YoichiOishi Ah, I did see that page, but I didn't see where it used "eats," so I assumed you meant that there was a difference between the physical magazine and the website. Now that I looked a bit closer and found the homepage, I see what you mean. It does look very much like they just needed to shorten it on the homepage. – Harrison May 28 '14 at 1:16

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