Dead in the Water

“Sunset” is a metaphor, except for the twenty-five percent of Americans who believe the sun rotates around the earth.  Even then….  The sun sets and the sun also rises.  Think about it.  Fortunately, the metaphors are dead.  That is to say, they no longer operate as analogies, and the writer who cleverly causes the sun to cluck as it sets will be regarded with well-deserved scorn.

When I switched from writing poetry to writing fiction, I pared most of the visual analogies out of my language.  I was following George Orwell’s idea that the language of narrative ought to be as clear as a pane of window glass.  I had got down to one metaphor per chapter before I noticed Orwell was using an analogy to make his point.  Nevertheless, it’s a good point.  Action scenes should not be cluttered with extraneous verbiage.  It calls attention to itself (and to the author) when the focus ought to be on what’s happening.  And it should also be noted that too many metaphors reduce the effectiveness of each.

English  has a very large lexicon.  I’d be willing to bet that at least a third of the nouns originated as metaphors.  For example, “book” is cognate with “beech” in Germanic languages.  Somewhere somebody was writing on beech bark, but we don’t make the connection today.  “Barn” and “barley” have a common origin too, but neither calls the other to mind.  A “dandelion” is a French version of “tooth of a lion.”  These dead metaphors don’t create style glitches, but  half-dead metaphors can.  Lately I’ve been reading a lot of fiction with language that’s feebly figurative, on the verge of becoming neutral but not quite there yet.  The effect is cluttered and sometimes downright confusing.

The problem is easiest to spot in slang and idiomatic phrases.  How many time have  you seen the phrase “toe the line” spelled “tow the line?”  The idiom referred to foot-racing originally, though it came to mean “follow the rules” or “behave yourself.”  It had nothing whatsoever to do with dragging a rope.  The forward march of technical change leaves fossils embedded in language, to sport a metaphor.  Have you “dialed” a phone lately?  Probably not.  Same with “taping” a message.  How about “wiping the slate clean?”  When I was in Wales a couple of years ago, I visited a big slate mine.  I would hate to have to wipe all of that slate clean, though the slate referred to in the phrase was the kind children used in school when they were learning to write in the olden days.

We’re probably fairly sensitive to vocabulary changes resulting from developments in communications, but other “revolutions” have had a more serious impact on language.  I write Regency romances as well as mysteries, and I like playing with Regency language, but I don’t have the energy to master the vocabulary needed to talk about sailing, so my characters are landlocked.  Until the development of air travel, though, most people would have had some familiarity with nautical terms.  The situation is even worse with agriculture.

When I was in elementary school, half my classmates lived on farms.  Now life on a farm is a rare privilege for children.  That causes serious misunderstanding of texts that were accessbile fifty years ago.  Shakespeare, for instance, and the Bible.  If the preacher says that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, children in the congregation will have visions of ballpark hotdogs and be mightily confused.  I would suggest a post-agricultural translation, but Scripture is so doggedly farming-minded that any such effort would lead to screams of outrage from literal believers.  To complicate matters even further, British and American agricultural terms are sometimes drastically different, so there might have to be two translations.  The lovely word “harvest,” the same in both dialects, is being destroyed by journalists and politicians.  Any day now, we may see some urban police force “harvesting” illegal immigrants.

Just thinking about this is traumatic, a term borrowed from German via Dr. Freud.  “Trauma” is cognate with “dream.”  Sounds like a nightmare to me.

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