Monday, June 18, 2007

Worn-out Metaphors and Evolving Language: Peter King

George Orwell condemns worn-out metaphors in part because they no longer evoke a concrete image. He condemns this "staleness of imagery" in "dying metaphors" because

"A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically "dead" (e.g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. [...] Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a "rift," for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact."

This is the problem: a metaphor is supposed to provide an image that helps illuminate the meaning of the idea. But when a metaphor is used again and again, it loses the power to supply an image: instead it is just a word or phrase. If a metaphor is extremely overused, it is worse than that: it hinders clear understanding. A worn-out metaphor contributes to the "lack of precision" that Orwell condemns above all other abuses of language.

In Peter King's MMQB this week, the first paragraph contains the cliches "not much to sink your football teeth into" and "Here's my attempt to stir things up." Naturally, I prepared to write a Chronicle of Cliche (because I never really grow bored with doing so, and I've never seen such egregious use of worn-out metaphors outside of Peter King).

But looking at the second cliche, I reflected on the atrocious nature of wearing out metaphors, on how they transform from evocative image into stale language. "To stir things up" must certainly have once referred to actual stirring, and using the metaphor of "stirring" to refer to something other than mixing a beverage may have evoked the image of just what stirring does. But it doesn't anymore: the cliche about "stirring things up" is now used so frequently to define people causing trouble or instigating debate that when we read it, we no longer picture anything actually being stirred.

As I continued through King's column, I found more examples of these truly dead metaphors. Let's examine some of them to illustrate how a metaphor dies.

"Manning's No. 1 (Surprise!)"

This is the death of irony. When one says "Surprise!" after something that is totally expected, predictable, or obvious, one is attempting an ironic use of the word. However, in writing, I rarely see the use of "Surprise!" to actually mean surprise; when I see it now, it is usually "ironically" used after something that is not surprising at all. If I handed this column to a non-football fan who had never heard of Peyton Manning, and he/she saw the sentence "Manning's No. 1 (Surprise!)," I strongly believe he/she would know that it is not actually a surprise. And so "Surprise!" after an unsurprising statement is no longer ironical, but a straight clear meaning. The word "surprise" in writing is so often used to mean its opposite that it is now a truly weak word.

"I'd take Drew Brees over Carson Palmer if I were starting a team right now. Sacrilege!"

New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia says that "Sacrilege is in general the violation or injurious treatment of a sacred object. In a less proper sense any transgression against the virtue of religion would be a sacrilege." And yet in a civilization no longer controlled by the Roman Catholic Church, the term "sacrilege" has lost a lot of its original powerful meaning. It's another word that when used in writing is usually meant ironically. Like a wispy, hazy ghost in Hades, it has the shadow of an image: you probably associate "sacrilege" with some sort of religious debasement.

However, the metaphor itself shouldn't really work. The better metaphor would be "heresy," which refers to unorthodox doctrine of belief, and often a statement of unorthodox belief. In the Catholic Encyclopedia, "sacrilege" does not refer to speech against a sacred object, but physical defilement of some sort. So the religious metaphor King should be looking for is "heresy": he believes and is stating that he'd take Brees over Palmer. Sacrilege refers to physical violation of a sacred person, place, or object. Does this matter to how the metaphor is used? Possibly not--but it's not a precise metaphor because its meaning has shifted. It probably shouldn't be used because we don't know precisely what "sacrilege" actually refers to, but have a vague concept of religious desecration.

"With fewer weapons and..."

"he is the right trigger man for the Lions' offense."

Just keep these one in mind. I'm working on an essay about the images of war or violence used to describe sports (an essay that could will either be a short exploration post, or a longer post that would serve as the magnus opus of this blog). These metaphors are prevalent and will require some deeper reflection before I'm reading to fully explore them. But consider this: when you hear the word "weapon" in relation to football, you don't actually think of a weapon, do you? When you hear about the "battle" "in the trenches," or "trench warfare," you probably just picture the play of the offensive and defensive linemen and not actual armies digging trenches for a battle, right? These images are metastasized into sports.

"As for how I arrived at my picks, other than with a divining rod, I used a few measuring sticks."


Interesting that King doesn't use what he metaphorically calls "a divining rod," but instead uses "a few measuring sticks." When he says "measuring sticks," do you actually picture rulers? No: a "measuring stick" now just means a standard for measuring something, not an actual stick.

"Even if I feel a team is making the wrong move (as in Kansas City going with the very green Brodie Croyle, which it looks like the Chiefs are going to do), the opening day starter is the guy I've rated here."

Do you picture a green piece of fruit, not yet ripe, when you see an inexperienced player called "green"?

"Has Carlos Zambrano blown another gasket yet?"

I'm willing to bet that a lot of people use the metaphor of "blowing a gasket" to refer to somebody losing ones temper, expressing anger, etc., without actually knowing what a "gasket" is or what is actually means to "blow" it.

I do not condemn the use of metaphoric language; indeed, good, original, creative metaphors can evoke images that illustrate or illuminate the meaning of an idea. But worn-out metaphors do not: they are in the process of evolving into mere idioms. You might be able to explain the origin or image of such an idiom, but whether you can or not doesn't matter: you understand what the idiom means without actually envisioning an image.

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