Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Dying metaphors

Posted by metaphorical on 20 December 2006

My cousin writes:


Much has been made lately of the transformation from “I couldn’t care less” to “I could care less”.

I take no issue with this because, just as the brain rights the upside-down world perceived by the eyes, it rights the illogic of the new phrase by adding a silent “NOT!” Voila. Kol ba seder (Hebrew: everything’s in order), or copacetic.

[My brother] observed years ago that it’s something special to be heels over head for somebody, but head over heels? Hell, except in bed or on the trapeze, we’re always head over heels.

But now I’m onto “there’s no love lost between them”. Shouldn’t that be “there’s no love found between them”? Or, too look at the contrapositive, “there’s no love lost” means “there is love found”.


“I could care less” has always bothered the hell out of me, though I agree that there’s an implicit “not” or “but” that makes it sort of okay (“… but first I’d have to care at all”).

“Head over heels” doesn’t bother me too much, maybe because it still conveys the image of tumbling. Now that I think about it though, it should bother me a lot more than it does.

“No love lost” doesn’t bother me at all. It’s the same as “no love to be found.”

The problem with these phrases, each of them, is that they’re meaningless. Orwell, in his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” has this to say:

DYING METAPHORS. 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. Examples are: ring the changes on, take up the cudgels for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, an axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed. 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. For example, toe the line is sometimes written tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would be aware of this, and would avoid perverting the original phrase.

I’ve previously quoted Orwell’s rule #1, of the six rules that conclude the essay, is:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

The main point, then, is that we should simply jettison all three phrases, rid them from our lives, cast them adrift on the sea of words.

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48 Responses to “Dying metaphors”

  1. ClaireDePlume said

    Freedom of speech has become encased in trite-isms with a hefty side of free spewage, and all with criminal intent to commit verbicide. We are out to sea on this, our metaphorical quandry amidst murky oceans of miscommunication – tossing our inaccuracies as mere flotsam and jetsam into the shallow end of synapse plateau-tudes. Not since wise wans once asked, “Where’s the beef?” have we been so linguistically challenged.

    I axe yous all, ain’t it two bad that nobody knows nothin about birthin words no mo’?

  2. Well, I’m coming awfully late to this party, but I’ll throw in my two cents’ worth:

    I have always regarded each of the metaphors Orwell calls “worn out” as admirably vivid. (Of course, I also know what a “rift” is, and I suspect Orwell did too.) They each seem to me to call up a distinct image with particular and precise implications. It’s certainly true that most metaphors are badly used, but not, I think, because the writer “does not care”, as Orwell claims, but because most people are so goddamned ignorant and half-literate that they simply don’t know what they’re saying. (That is the reason for “tow the line”.)

    To those who know what phenomenon or image is invoked by each of those metaphors, each is applicable to circumstances that resemble those referenced contexts – and to no others. They add flavor when properly used, and more importantly encapsulate a powerful argument: this situation, which we are now trying to understand, resembles that other one which we do understand [engaging in a thorough and methodical review of variations on a given theme; cleaving to a marked standard as a sign of determination or obedience; standing together in battle line; etc.], and our response in this situation should be similar to our response in that other one [we must thoroughly and methodically review all the variations of this theme; we must signify our loyalty and obedience; we must stand together with determination as if facing battle; etc.]. The argument, to be valid, must employ a metaphor that actually does resemble the current circumstances in relevant characteristics; to craft such an argument, one must know what the metaphor means, or at the very least what it refers to. But those who have that knowledge can use these metaphors with precision and effect; I do not regard them as degraded by their use (though they may be diminished in effect by their continual wrong use, such that they no longer make the necessary impression even when used correctly).

    I like metaphors, including old ones. I don’t like cliches, but not all metaphors are cliches, and being well-known does not make them so.

  3. (Goddamnit . . . I wish there was an edit function on these comment things . . .)

    For “does not care” substitute “is not interested”; for “invoked” substitute “evoked”; for any other errors, substitute what I meant to say.

  4. Yep, I love the way Blogspot, for example, has a preview function.

    Anyway, you can’t possibly imagine that a site named metaphorical is countenancing any kind of sweeping indictment of metaphors. Orwell is concerned here with dead metaphors. One problem, of course, is that the metaphors you call attention to are almost certainly a little less dead than they were in mid-century England.

    More generally, a certain metaphorical thinking is inescapable, especially the great metaphors (or transcendental categories of thought if you prefer) of space and time. But clear thought requires that we see when and where the metaphorical comparisons are apt and when the are not, and that requires, first and foremost that we vigilantly notice, or at least try to notice, it when we are thinking in metaphor. I think that’s Orwell’s main point.

    • Faustine:} said

      That is exactly what I was getting at, while I was reading the post. Orwell not implying that the metaphors are used out or worn out, rather, he was saying that people use them in the wrong context. They are not aware they are using the expression in the wrong way, so they need to notice the definition of the phrase and where it was derived from to understand it and use it properly.

  5. ClaireDePlume said

    Can we see the trees for the forest, or should this read, can we see the forest for the trees…? So many fallen trees, so many tree lives lost, all to provide homes on pages of books offering nothing more than a habitat for wanton words. Tsk.

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