A long swat

Brian’s post about the early bird, lovely post that it was, left a small, very nasal fly inside my head who has been buzzing away, demanding a good swatting. This little essay is meant to be a rolled up piece of paper with which to do away with him.

Brian began by pointing out that metaphors are mortal. He then went on to talk about ‘proverbs’—“lockets with fossils inside”—a suggestion that they die too. I think perhaps Brian was conflating two things here that can be teased apart. Thus the fly.

My question then—Metaphors die, do proverbs?

So what is it for a metaphor to die? In one sense, it is what a linguist calls “lexicalization.” Which reminds me of a John Prine lyric from his new album—

Constantinople is a mighty big word
Got three more letters than Mockingbird
Put me on the mooring train…

Oddly, “lexicalization” has the exact same number of letters as “Constantinople” but let that go. Lexicalization simply means that a word grows a new sense. Now of course words are constantly—daily, even moment to moment—finding ways to draw their paychecks from a new employer. But when a word gets a new little number under its heading the sense that was once just a temp job is now an established line of work. Once a very witty man described his very witty fellow as a bright light, even brilliant. Now, look it up in the dictionary. Its #6.

Now I am putting this all in a more sympathetic light than we are used to doing. Usually the death of a metaphor is talked about in somber tones, as a death should be. What was lively in the language has become stale. Truthfully, though, I believe that it is more accurate to say that the plant has died and now fertilizes the ground for another plant to grow out of. There is really nothing tedious about dead metaphors when you consider that their carcasses are the currency of our talk. What we buy with them are new metaphors, ones with oomph.

But something is missing here, for sure. There is something right in labeling the use of dead metaphors—or dead something—as bad writing. Forgive this fit of self-reference (a regrettable habit of linguists) but consider the word “stale” in the last paragraph. I don’t like it and am only preserving it to make this point. It’s the kind of thing I would call a dead bit of language. I could have said ‘What was once fluid in the language has become dry’ or worked up something better still than that.

I think the style problem with ‘dead language’ comes from either (a) using dead bits of language as if they were still alive—one likes their corpses a-moldering in the grave, not sitting in the living room—or (b) just using the wrong term for the wrong thing. Problem (b) shows up in this context a lot because a recently lexicalized sense of a word is just that: recent. People make errors about what that sense is, or to put it more democratically, people have different associations. Its likely that a misfire in the associations between the speaker and hearer often makes it seem like the speaker is being flowery—and then we got problem (a). So, a metaphor can die an organic and, if you will, healthy death. Or its grave can be robbed, desecrated and generally troubled.

Now, where is the metaphor in “The early bird gets the worm?” Nothing is said to be something else here. Of course we are meant to think that we, getting the jump on our fellows, are (like) the early bird. But I am uncomfortable with calling this a metaphor. What it is is a proverb. A proverb is a statement, a sentence, a complete thought. I found a treasure trove of proverbs at this site. Here’s a couple I hadn’t heard before:

“A tree never hits an automobile except in self defense.”
“A girl with cotton stockings never sees a mouse.”

These are statements (propositions, in the jargon). They have subjects, verbs, objects and the whole bit. While it is possible for a metaphor to be very explicitly laid out in a statement (The Assyrian was a wolf) and, in fact, this is how we learn what a metaphor is in school, we all know that this is not how metaphors really come to us. We rarely say, out and out, that A is B when A is patently not. What we (well, Byron) say is “The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold.” The metaphor is in there but its not the statement, entire. Apologies to Ogden Nash. And I realize that I am conflating simile and metaphor here, perhaps. But in my view this is really a less vexing category problem than the one I am trying to sort out.

A proverb is a statement that hangs around because it resonates in the following way: Something besides what is said to be the subject seems like it’s the subject and something besides what is said to be the action described seems like it’s the action described. Et cetera. You can say “Good fences make good neighbors” about fences and the education of neighbors but the saying hangs around because, brought up in a different context, it speaks to things that aren’t really fences at all. Mr. Kalkavadge once butted in to a conversation that I was having with a fellow student in the coffee shop with the old saw “The greatest enemy of the good is the better.” Now we were not talking about Plato and the Good. We were talking about changing our pizza order.

I would suggest that a proverb can not die in the graceful way that I suggest a metaphor can die. It is simply too big and bulky an item to get properly mulched up into the soil. It can, however, very much like an invented word-sense, dry up from over-familiarity and intrude on the ear when its used in a context that is not quite right. There’s more to be said about metaphor and proverbs but that’s more than enough for now.

One response to “A long swat”

  1. I should perhaps explain. The locket was the proverb (the container), the metaphor the fossil (the thing contained).

    Some proverbs with no (or little) metaphor:

    • A fool and his money are soon parted.
    • A friend in need is a friend indeed.
    • A man is known by his friends.
    • All good things must come to an end.
    • All the world loves a lover.
    • Ask no questions and hear no lies.
    • Never give a sucker an even break.
    • Always leave them wanting more.
    • Never wear brown shoes with a blue suit.
    • Never put off to tomorrow what you can do today.
    • Brevity is the soul of wit.
    • Neither a borrower nor a lender be.
    • Great minds think alike, but fools seldom differ.
    • To thine own self be true.
    • Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.

    It took a bit of googling, but I found two proverbs I’m confident have died.

    • No grass grows where the Turk’s horse has trod.
    • No money, no Swiss.

    Some passages from Orwell’s Politics and the English Language:

    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 cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, rift within the lute, 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 withouth those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as 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 avoid perverting the original phrase.

    As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier—even quicker, once you have the habit—to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for the words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious. When you are composing in a hurry—when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech—it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash—as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot—it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking.

    The essay also contains an image I like and don’t think I’ve seen elsewhere: “the writer knows more or less what he wants to say, but an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea leaves blocking a sink.”

    I mentioned the game of unfinished clichés. In writing this comment, I discovered another: “He who lies down with dogs gets up,” or “He who lies down with dogs will rise.” Anyway, let bygones be. Oh, and always look before you.

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