What are Metaphors For?Posted: November 28, 2014
Thanks to innumerable news headlines, I know that Washington D.C. is a hotbed for corruption; that Silicon Valley is a hotbed for technology firms; that universities are a hotbed for political dissent. Hotbeds abound. But it was not until I read Politics and the English Language by George Orwell that I even realized that I didn’t know what a hotbed is! And I strongly suspect that most of the writers who use the word don’t know either.
A hotbed, I am informed, is a piece of earth that is heated by the introduction of decaying manure or compost for the purposes of encouraging germination. Presumably, a long time ago, some clever individual decided to speak about a certain locale or community as a hotbed, one particularly conducive to the growth of a certain ideology rather than seeds. It is a very vivid and apt metaphor. Or, rather, it was a very vivid metaphor. It has been so overused that the word no longer evokes any imagery at all. Hotbed is now just an ordinary word, used by writers who are too lazy to think of their own phrases to convey an image.
In search of another example, I typed “roughshod” into a google news search and found nearly 2,000 recent articles that included the word. Politicians ride roughshod over the Bill of Rights, greedy developers ride roughshod over our communities, football teams run roughshod over their opponents. Ironically, the football examples are almost accidentally accurate. A roughshod horse is one that has special spiked horseshoes for handling icy conditions. Football players wear spiked shoes as well and, on occasion, literally run over their opponents. Still, when writers use the word roughshod, they almost certainly do not expect their readers to picture the equestrian equivalent of tire chains. Like hotbed, roughshod is a dead metaphor and its use is simply lazy writing.
As much as I hate to call out Herman Melville, I suspect that George Orwell would have ripped into him for this sort of writing. Just after I read Politics and the English Language, I reread Benito Cereno and finished Billy Budd, Sailor. While reading, I was constantly distracted by lines that would have drawn hefty rebukes from Orwell. At one point in Billy Budd, Melville provided a doubly questionable phrase by both mixing metaphors and using a metaphor apparently without knowing (or caring) what it actually means: “these words so fatherly in tone, doubtless touch[ed] Billy’s heart to the quick.”
Let us break this down, shall we? “To touch one’s heart” is a metaphor as old language itself (probably.) It is hardly objectionable on that count, though; the heart is still the symbolic center of emotion and there is perhaps no better way to say that words inspire emotion than to say that they touch the heart. “[Cut] to the quick”, however, is an expression that occasionally gets used without any real understanding. The quick is the living flesh under one’s finger or toenails. When one trims his nails, he must be careful not to “cut to the quick”, lest he experience a sharp pain. If somebody else cuts one to the quick, the injury is multiplied because of the intimate nature of the injury. The person doing the cutting is no passing stranger and certainly not an avowed enemy; he is somebody who has been trusted to aid in one’s personal toilet. So when I read that words touched Billy’s heart to the quick, I pictured an anthropomorphic heart having his fingernails clipped. Surely that is not the image that Melville wanted to convey, but that is what his words seem to imply. How can a heart be touched to the quick? According to Orwell, such a mixing of metaphors is “a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying.” If Melville did not stop to think what his words really conveyed, why should any reader care either?
Beer of the Week: Samuel Smith Pure Brewed Organic Lager Beer – This beer is a bit better and a bit maltier than an average mass-produced lager. However, it simply does not finish strong. There is neither enough malt or hops to really make this beer work. It doesn’t taste bad, but it really should have more flavor. I wanted to like this more.
Reading for the Week: Politics and the English Language by George Orwell – “Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Politicians like when language deteriorates and gives way to meaningless platitudes and dead metaphors because it is much safer for them to say things without substance than to actually put forward a clear and concise thought.
Question for the week: While some of the phrases that Orwell objects to are still in common usage, such as Achilles’ heal, axe to grind, others have gone the way of Betamax, such as ring the changes on, jackboot, and take up the cudgel. What more recent phrases have become so overused that they are now devoid of meaning?