Judging from a list of the ‘most annoying clichés’ in the English language compiled by the Plain English Campaign – one of the greatest examples of modern oratory might never have seen the light of day, if they’d had anything to do with it.
For the most part their ‘most annoying clichés’ list is unexceptionable. It contains many of the usual linguistic suspects: words that are misunderstood and misused; words and phrases that are used as fillers to bulk up the vacuous and trivial – like literally and the fact of the matter is; euphemisms – like to be perfectly honest and I hear what you’re saying; professional jargon that has spilled over into everyday use – like the economist’s value-added; slang expressions that have been flogged to death – like awesome and 24/7; and confusing slang – like diamond geezer (confusing because in US English geezer means an old person, especially an eccentric old man).
So far, so good. But I begin to feel uneasy when I notice that nearly half their list is populated by metaphors like move the goalposts and glass half full (or half empty). Metaphors like these are condemned by the plain English brigade because they breach George Orwell’s famous dictum: “never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
The dictum comes from Orwell’s Politics and the English Language – an essay, published in 1946, about the causes of and possible cures for the decline of the English language. I share with advocates of plain English an admiration for the essay’s incisiveness and brilliance, but I part company with them when it comes to deciding which bits of Orwell’s advice matter most.
Politics and the English Language contains many riches – unfortunately, this particular dictum isn’t one of them. At best, it’s a spur to original thought and expression; at worst, it’s an unattainable, and unrealistic, ideal. A newly coined metaphor – one that perfectly captures a familiar experience and helps us appreciate it in new and insightful ways – is always welcome; but even the most gifted writers and speakers only manage a sprinkling of such felicities in their writings and speeches.
Even if such an ideal were attainable, I suspect that a piece of writing using only unfamiliar metaphors, similes, and other figures of speech, would be utterly exhausting and challenging to read. After all, inventiveness stands out best against a background of the familiar and predictable.
What worries me more is that Orwell’s most interesting insights about metaphor don’t appear to figure in the Plain English Campaign’s edicts about what constitutes good writing, speaking and thinking. In the essay, Orwell’s principal concern is the relationship between words and thoughts, and his main criterion for diagnosing the health of a piece of writing is whether its words reveal thought, or obscure it.
The great enemy of clarity is abstraction. Orwell’s advice is to put off using words for as long as possible “and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures or sensations,” because it’s always tempting – and far easier – to miss out this demanding first stage of writing and let words do the work of choosing your meaning for you. Orwell is unequivocal on this point, “…the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them.”
He argues that “the sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image”, and the measure of a metaphor’s effectiveness is its power to assist thought “by evoking a visual image.” When a metaphor loses – or begins to lose – this evocative power, Orwell describes it as dead, or dying.
But many commonplace metaphors would be better described as dormant, rather than dying or dead, because all it takes is a nudge to remind us that they’re napping, not comatose. As you lower a metaphor like, “I wouldn’t like to be in her shoes” into its grave all it takes is a slight prod to have it miraculously sitting up in its coffin: “the thing about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is that you need to take your own shoes off first.” I find it difficult to imagine reviving a metaphor like “he’s in a bit of a rut,” in quite the same way.
This is because the ability of words to conjure up images arises from their origins in the physical world. Ralph Waldo Emerson said “language is fossil poetry.” It’s just that you have to dig a lot deeper for the origins of some words than others – those buried deepest tend to be the ones we encounter later in life. A metaphor based on a familiar word like ‘shoe’ is going to have greater evocative power than one based on a less familiar word like ‘rut’. ‘Shoe’ is one of the first words a small child encounters; ‘rut’ isn’t.
As always, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Barack Obama’s inspiring acceptance speech is jam-packed with the kinds of everyday metaphors that prop up the Plain English Campaign’s ‘most annoying clichés’ list. A cursory glance at the transcript reveals a string of crimes: “a man who campaigned from his heart”; “without the unyielding support”; “the unsung hero”; “our campaign was not hatched”; ”a determination to heal the divides”; and I could go on.
Language has changed a great deal since Orwell wrote his essay; the gap between spoken and written language narrows with each passing day. The Plain English Campaign’s condemnation of the commonplace metaphor betrays a lack of sensitivity to the poetry and evocative power of everyday language. To get the best out of words you have to love them, not distrust them. And when it comes to rules about good English it’s vital to use your personal and aesthetic judgement to respond to their spirit rather than their letter. Orwell encapsulated this spirit perfectly in his final rule: “break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”