Politics, Technology, and Language

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

Archive for December 20th, 2006

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.

Posted in language, Orwell, writing | 7 Comments »

Orwell’s essay: Politics and the English Language

Posted by metaphorical on 20 December 2006

I thought I might as well format and
post my own copy of Orwell’s essay,
if I’m going to link to it frequently.
I’ve also added a tag for especially
Orwell-related entries.

Title: Politics and the English Language
Author: George Orwell
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0200151.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: February 2002
Date most recently updated: February 2002

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Title: Politics and the English Language

Author: George Orwell

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent, and our language–so the argument runs–must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. I will come back to this presently, and I hope that by that time the meaning of what I have said here will have become clearer. Meanwhile, here are five specimens of the English language as it is now habitually written.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in journalism, language, Orwell, politics | 2 Comments »

A baby was born–lots of them

Posted by metaphorical on 20 December 2006

The idea of “blackout babies” is an urban legend, nevertheless,

For decades and decades, the busiest day of the year in the nation’s maternity wards fell sometime in mid-September. Americans evidently do a lot of baby-making during the cold, dark days of December,

reports David Leonhardt in today’s NY Times. But that was before increases in the 1990s in the tax benefits of having a baby—meaning a benefit to having your baby in December instead of January.

In the last decade, September has lost its unchallenged status as the time for what we will call National Birth Day, the day with more births than any other. Instead, the big day fell between Christmas and New Year’s Day in four of the last seven years — 1997 through 2003 — for which the government has released birth statistics.

Of course, there could be various other reasons.

to see if taxes were truly the culprit, Mr. Chandra and another economist, Stacy Dickert-Conlin of Michigan State, devised some clever tests. They found that people who stood to gain the most from the tax breaks were also the ones who gave birth in late December most frequently. When the gains were similar, high-income parents — who, presumably, are more likely to be paying for tax advice — produced more December babies than other parents.

Induced births and Caesarean sections aren’t really the best things in the world for either the mom or the baby, and they’re an added expense as well—a major expense that gets pushed onto the health care system so that the family can get a smaller personal benefit. There’s an easy way to fix this—Leonhardt makes the obvious suggestion of pro-rating the tax benefit to be n/12ths per month (1/12th in December). Or we could just fix the tax code entirely.

Posted in politics, technology | 3 Comments »