This metaphor ain’t dead, it’s just restin’

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.”


  1. Spot on. It’s refreshing to read a blog which avoids the temptation to issue simple polemical edicts and instead gives well thought-through advice that carefully unpicks and exposes the nuances of language.

    Three points spring to my mind.

    1. Cliches do work… so why worry. ‘Laying down the foundations’ and ‘driving forward’ may be cliches but at least people understand them. Would it be better to come up with something new that went over people’s heads? As Lakoff said, there are a pile of metaphors that are universal (eg idea as a container, argument as a war, nation as a family) – sticking within these metaphors aids understanding, cliched or not.

    2. If the cliches are really ugly, they can be improved and given fresh life. Some of the best metaphors come from taking a cliche and then twisting them into a fresh image, eg instead of saying ‘driving forward’ you might say, ‘look, we have a choice… we can either be sitting in the back seat as passengers feeling queazy or we can get in the front seat and take hold of the steering wheel ourselves…’ The audience can at least visualise this.

    3. Don’t come up with something original for the sake of it. Many of the worst metaphors are when people are trying to hard… The dreaded purple prose. I’ve committed a few of those crimes myself in my time, but none that I’d confess to here….

    Keep up the great blogging!

  2. Well put from both Martin and Simon.

    In painting you might put your most vivid colours on the focal point of the picture, but have the background vague and pale. So in writing it’s best to present your most original metaphor to underline the key point of the article or chapter. If you surround the key point with well-known clichés than that can help the reader and speed up communication. Pretentious writing can be a metaphor overload with too many distractions and the picture is gaudy. Contrastingly, writing strict plain English might be fine for a few sentences of an instruction manual but soon becomes dull and simplistic for a piece of any length. If the metaphor makes all your points more succinctly then if you had to list all the attributes of the comparison then use it, whether a possible cliché or not.

  3. Another really insightful post Martin that as always goes into great depth.

    Keep up the great work.

    Duncan Brodie

  4. Enjoyed your piece and don’t have much to add except to highlight a related curiosity: Flann O’Brien’s hilarious Catechism of Cliche in his selection of writing for the Irish Times – the Best of Myles.

    Stuff like:

    From What sort of time does a custom date?
    Time immemorial
    What is a bad thing worse than?
    If a thing is fraught, with what is it fraught?
    The gravest consequences

    … and why is it that small children are almost universally referred to as ‘tots’ in tabloid papers, but nowhere else?

  5. I was with you till this comment: ” but even the most gifted writers and speakers only manage a sprinkling of such felicities in their writings and speeches.”

    Clearly you have never read P G Wodehouse, who produces them at an astonishingly high rate…

    By the same token, I’d argue with Orwell’s “the sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image;” that may be one aim, but laughter is often another.

    So to add to the gaiety of nations (oops what a cliche) here are some random Wodehouse quotations…:

    Ice formed on the butler’s upper slopes.

    The unpleasant acrid smell of burned poetry.

    The drowsy stillness of the afternoon was shattered by what sounded to his strained senses like G. K. Chesterton falling on a sheet of tin.

    I turned to Aunt Agatha, whose demeanor was now rather like that of one who, picking daisies on the railway, has just caught the down express in the small of the back.

    He looked haggard and careworn, like a Borgia who has suddenly remembered that he has forgotten to shove cyanide in the consomme, and the dinner-gong due any moment.

    England was littered with the shrivelled remains of curates at whom the lady bishopess had looked through her lorgnette. He had seen them wilt like salted snails at the episcopal breakfast table.

    and so on…

  6. Great post, Martin. And I love your sentence: “To get the best out of words you have to love them, not distrust them.” I just might have to steal it in the future! (Consider yourself warned. ;-D


  7. Really interesting blog Martin. As usual.

    Just a quick thought:

    It’s really difficult to avoid using metaphors. I just used one then. And then. It can help if we distinguish between the big metaphors that stand out in our speech, that we’ve really thought about and carefully chosen, from the little metaphors that naturally colour our speech. These little ones often say a lot about how we view the world. They help us to conceptualise ideas. They make connections. They make us think in pictures, just as Orwell would encourage.

  8. Martin, I’ve never agreed with the idea of “Plain English”. It seems very misguided. Simple English, yes, when it’s called for. But it’s wrong to equate simple with plain. The point about the Orwell essay the people often overlook is the politics. His essay isn’t called “The English Language”; it’s called “Politics and the English Language”. I think he would have heartily disapproved of any organisation that produced lists of phrases and figures of speech that it wanted people to stop using, or tried to impose a common standard of how we are supposed to write “properly”. Maybe they should read 1984?

  9. Martin Shovel says

    Many thanks for your comment, Vincent. The point you’ve made is crucially important because I believe it marks the difference between a good and an outstanding speaker, or writer. Big metaphors are like icebergs – pretty hard to miss – whereas those pesky little ones are elusive, and have a sharp bite than can easily snap your finger off, or worse!

  10. I’ve enjoyed reading this blog and I tend to agree with people’s comments. I think the trick with using metaphors is to conduct a quick inner cringe test. Moving the goalposts is inoffensive, but if I see the phrase “number-crunching” again I’ll scream…

  11. Martin, thank you. I thoroughly enjoyed this perspective on what is an ageing critique on the English language.

    Andrew, with the exception of Aunt Agatha’s express, I found P G Wodehouse’s images difficult to understand. They either rely on a word I do not know (lorgnette, consomme) or are too obscure to make much sense to the listener.

    I say ‘listener’, because as a politician, I must take care that my language will be understood when spoken and not only when read. In my context – South Africa – much of my target market are second language speakers and thus simpler, clearer English is of more importance to me than a producing my own tribute to Wodehouse.

    Listening to many of my colleagues at work can be cringeworthy stuff. The pretension of which Orwell speaks is alive among the dregs of politics. Ironically, politicians tend to used fancy language to portray themselves as better than the people they represent.

    What I take from reading considered opinions like Orwell’s and yours Martin is that we should think about our choices of word and phrase. Dead images must be recognised as just that before the writer can consider transforming them as you did with your shoes.

    I’ll be back!

  12. Martin,

    Thank you for highlighting Orwell’s insights about language and thought. It’s much too easy and, I confess, fun to rail against commonplace metaphors and overused phrases and, in the process, to miss Orwell’s insistence on saying exactly what you mean.

    “Politics and the English Language,” like so many of Orwell’s essays, is both wise and, at times, wildly off the mark. And yet it exemplifies most of what I look for in a speech. It is clear. It’s insightful and thought provoking. And it’s unmistakably his voice.

    What he wrote more than 60 years ago — “[the Enligsh language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts” — is perhaps even more telling today.

    Part of what I mind most about the (over)reliance on commonplace metaphors and tired expressions is that they rob speakers of their distinct voice. Maybe it’s different in the UK, but here in the US too many speakers sound like everyone else.

    Thanks for the great post.

  13. Martin Shovel says

    Thanks for your comment Chris. As we say in the UK, I think we’re singing from the same hymn sheet on this one. And I think your distinction between commonplace metaphors and tired ones is crucial, because it’s the tired ones that are responsible for many of our communication woes.

    Tired metaphors come in two flavours: those that don’t evoke any kind of clear mental image; and those that evoke a clear mental image that bears no relationship to the intended meaning of the metaphor.

    The non-evocative sort fail to ignite either because the word(s) they contain have lost their evocative power (a word like ‘rut’, for example, becomes less current as our agricultural past recedes); or because they’ve been around so long their syntax is no longer clear, or idiomatic, to the modern ear (for instance, Orwell’s example of ‘toe the line’).

    The tired evocative metaphors evoke a clear mental image, but the problem with the image they evoke is that it has nothing to do with the intended meaning. A good example is ‘pushing the envelope’. I asked two friends what they thought it meant and got two very different answers. One gave the correct definition – ‘improve performance by moving beyond current limitations’ – but the other thought it meant some kind of bribe, because it evoked a picture of a person pushing an envelope (presumably full of money) in someone else’s direction.

    When it comes to accuracy, the second sort of tired metaphor is, of course, a liability. However, when it comes to serendipitous linguistic creativity, they can occasionally be fun!

  14. Robert Petry says

    Sorry for not reading all the other comments. I just wanted to leave a small hint at linguistics and their view of metaphors. If you’re interested have a look at “Metaphors we live by” bit outdated but explains the basics of metaphor theory 😀

  15. I am in love with the art of metaphor and came upon this post from a Google Alert on writing and metaphors. There is a craft to creating a good metaphor, but it also seems that there is small talk within the written word as well as within verbal communication. These cliche’ metaphors have been reduced to idle chatter. We need them though, they are icebreakers and as easily thrown about at the weather.

  16. Your point that “inventiveness stands out best against a background of the familiar” is an important one, which any writer or public speaker should take to heart. Metaphors and their offspring, idioms, are always being reworked to restore their lost vitality. Where would gag writers be without the tired trope and fagged-out figure of speech? The example you give, ‘to be in someone else’s shoes’, is a good one, and I remember seeing a version on a poster: “If you’re angry with your friend, walk a mile in his shoes. That way you’ll be a mile away from him and you’ll have his shoes!” Your title reminds us that the dead parrot sketch is still quoted and alluded to forty years on because the metaphorical resonance of its central image was so powerful. And so funny.

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