Mangling language

Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ still holds up pretty well, although it is interesting to see what kinds of words upset him. For instance, under the heading Pretentious diction, he lists both individual (as a noun) and basic as words which ‘ are used to dress up a simple statement and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgements’. And yet I don’t think we’d think of either now as being pretentious (as a matter of fact, we might think diction was a little pretentious). Orwell also has a pop at the use of foreign languages, especially Latin, to dress a piece of prose up in its Sunday best. But you don’t have to read many Orwell essays to come across phrases like mutatis mutandis. He didn’t always practise what he preached.

Still, the area in which he remains particularly right concerns the use of dead metaphors, in which category he lists ‘toeing the line’, pointing out that it is often spelled (or spelt, really, English is a nuisance) ‘towing the line’, which means that the speaker has lost all sight of what image the phrase is intended to conjure up. Not just speakers; singers, too. The most recent exhumation of the long-late Nick Drake’s lost songs includes one called ‘Tow The Line’. But the phrase isn’t about pulling a length of cord, but bringing the toes up to a line in an orderly fashion, as in an army inspection, and therefore being obedient, which is the general sense of the phrase – usually being obedient to a set of instructions to which it is best not to be true: as in ‘toeing the party line’, which is itself a confusion, since ‘line’ here means an attitude, and an attitude can’t be toed.

At this point, I am going to have to admit to watching ‘I’m A Celebrity – Get Me Out Of Here’, the annual pre-Christmas TV vote-off, in which a group of bigheads, fatheads, crackheads and slapheads are brought together in the Australian jungle, and allowed to go stir-crazy, and at intervals, forced to undertake high-wire acts or eating competitions in which live bugs and the testicles of kangaroos have to be swallowed. One of the famous faces (one of the ones I’d never heard of, although they have two international ‘names’ in there this year in Martina Navratilova and George ‘Mr. Sulu from Star Trek’ Takei) is a lad called Joe Swash. After a nasty spat, the contestants gathered to admit their problems with each other as openly as they could, given that each one presumably wants to win the extra exposure to which their agents have assured them they will be entitled. Joe was later interviewed, and said it was a good thing that they’d ‘aired their dirty laundry’.

This is such a great piece of mangled metaphor that it gets better the more you analyse it. Somewhere in there is a memory of ‘washing dirty linen in public’, and the idea of ‘airing a grievance’. The two have fatally collided, and it’s almost certainly the word ‘aired’ that has caused the problem, since airing is a part of the process of washing. But washing dirty linen is something supposed proverbially to be done in private, and airing linen – or ‘laundry’, as Joe Swash had it – is something you wouldn’t do if the stuff was dirty.

Of course, Private Eye has long run a column of such mangled metaphors, with special tribute being paid to football commentators, who are always liable to slip (one of my favourites is Rado 5’s Alan Green talking about a goal that put ‘Everton’s ship back on the road’). But the grandmother of all mistakes must be the one perpetrated by John Major, himself not above mis-quoting Orwell. The Conservative Party had just lost 2000 council seats, but he wasn’t ready to admit defeat. ‘We will do what the British nation has done all through its history when it had its back to the wall – turn round and fight for the things it believes in.’ I can’t get enough of that one.

Still, I also like the innocent error made at my primary school, when we were subjected to yet another General Knowledge (that’s a phrase that has gone) test. When asked ‘What do you call the man in charge of a kitchen?’, one of my fellow tinies piped up, ‘Captain Cook’.

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