Undead Metaphors

In college, I took a total of one political science class, which was taught by a professor whose lectures were so polluted with jargon, it would have taken a hazmat team to swamp them out. Nevertheless, I’m grateful to him for introducing me to “Politics and the English Language,” in which George Orwell pleads for clarity of language and thought.

One of the points Orwell makes concerns metaphors. A newly-invented metaphor, he says, “assists thought by evoking a visual image.” A “dead metaphor” (Orwell uses “iron resolution” as an example) is fine, too, because it has in effect “reverted to being an ordinary word.” Where we get in trouble is with our undead metaphors, which go lurching across the pages of our stories and essays, sucking the lifeblood from our prose.

Well. Orwell actually calls them “dying metaphors,” but it’s the same thing. They have “lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.” Examples, from Orwell: “stand shoulder to shoulder with,” “grist to the mill,” “no axe to grind,” “hotbed.”  I suspect that “hotbed” has expired somewhere over the half century or so since the essay was first published, but that’s up for debate.

The essay is a great, rollicking rant, including a “catalogue of swindles and perversions” that rob language of power, and a protest against “gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.” I leave you with my favorite part: Orwell’s translation of a passage of Ecclesiastes into “modern English”:


“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

Orwell’s “translation”:

“Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”

–Susan Fletcher


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3 responses to “Undead Metaphors

  1. It is with no small amount of collegial pride that I commend your incisive and entirely accurate portrayal of language that has become ineffectual through acculturated sloth and individual lack of verbal initiative and imagination.

  2. Oh, Lou, I'm pleased as punch that you feel this way!

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