Clichés and picturesque language

Originally published in The Spanner, issue 0008.

At first glance, English may seem to be going through a paradigm shift, with a  dizzying array of ways to put lipstick on the pig. This naturally provokes some push-back, even withering criticism, as we struggle to wrap our heads around it. But the upshot remains to be seen. Should we just run with it? Or should we step up to the plate and think outside the box? If you talk about the elephant in the room, will that mean you’re not a team player? Will you get thrown under a bus? And, on the other hand, at the end of the day, are we even truly at a crossroads?

More to the point, did that paragraph provoke you to hyperemesis?

We Anglophones have an apparently inexhaustible facility for creating clichés. A sharp turn of phrase or a particularly engaging image sparks interest and spreads like wildfire, and soon enough it’s tired and stale. This is not a new thing. Some hackneyed clichés of yesteryear have become so cemented that we continue to use them even though we no longer quite remember the literal reference. The result is sometimes what are called eggcorns: misconstrual of idiomatic words or phrases into things that make more sense to the modern eye and ear. This is how just deserts becomes just desserts, tide me over becomes tie me over, strait-laced and strait and narrow get straightened, sleight of hand gets slighted… Forget about trying to nip these in the bud in the nick of time; many of them are as old as the hills. You may look for the silver lining and try to make lemonade, but…

What? Oh, fine, I’ll stop. What I’ve really been doing is illustrating a central point of all of these: they’re all picturesque. They all involve metaphors. But in many cases the imagery is etiolated. The words are still there, and we could play with the images if we want, but for general use they are like posters or pin-ups that have been on the wall too long and are now faded to pale shades of cyan.

But that is how language works. Most language you use is made of metaphors and images that have lost their vividness and, in many cases, are no longer recognizable as imagery at all. Let us look at some “plain” words that could replace the clichés. Going through a paradigm shift – well, we could say changing, but that comes (much changed!) from a Latin word for bartering and exchanging, and may deriver further from an older word for bending or turning back. We could replace push-back with rejection, but reject is from Latin for “throw back.” If we prefer to understand rather than wrap our heads around, it ought not to take us too long to see the under and stand in understand. And if we go with comprehend? There’s the Latin again, meaning “grasp, seize” (remember that anything that can grab things is prehensile, from the same root). If you prefer betray to throw under a bus, you may want to know that the tray in betray conceals a Latin origin in trans plus dare, meaning “hand over.” And so it goes. Look back over this paragraph and try to find one verb I have used that isn’t a figurative use of a word with a physical reference: work, make, look, go… even prefer comes from Latin for “put in front, carry forward.”

In this way (as in a few others) English is like Chinese. I’m not talking about the Chinese use of imagery and metaphor, which is considerable; I mean the written form, the Chinese characters. People who aren’t familiar with Chinese characters may think of them as pictograms, resembling closely what they refer to. People who try to learn Chinese find very quickly that the characters generally give the reader nothing obvious to grab onto. This is because the characters are like our words and phrases that have had the imagery worn off them.

Let me give you a couple of examples. Look at the character for “look”: 看. Does that look like looking? How about after I tell you that it’s made of two parts, and the 手 was originally a hand (see the fingers? it has changed somewhat) and the 目 was originally an eye (it rotated 90˚ a long time ago; make the outside box curved and see the inside lines as making the edges of the iris)?

Now look at the character for “good”: 好. How does that look good, or like anything good? Well, the 女 part is the character for “woman,” and originally looked like a line drawing of a standing woman with her hands held in front of her. The 子 part is the character for “child,” and if you curve the top part and bend the crossbar down, you might begin to see an infant in swaddling clothes. It seems that, to the scribes who determined this character, the epitome of goodness was a mother and child.

Such is the way it goes, too, with our picturesque language. Time and tide, change and overuse, leave the imagery behind. But if you know how to look, it’s still good – and not altogether lacking in character.

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