Metaphors which you are used to seeing in print

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Prospero, "The World's Worst Sentence", The Economist 7/17/2013:

FINANCIAL books are not renowned for their literary merits. Neverthless, the reader is still entitled to expect something better than the following (from Philip Mirowski's new book "Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste"):

Yet the nightmare cast its shroud in the guise of a contagion of a deer-in-the-headlights paralysis.

That is not just a mixed metaphor; it is meaningless and pretentious at the same time. One would nominate it as the world's worst-written sentence but it is only the opening clause. After a semi-colon, the author drones on for a further 32 words, from which Economist readers should be spared.

Prospero suggests that this horror could have been avoided, if only the author or his editor had referred to

George Orwell's rules of writing (which introduce The Economist's in-house style guide) [...]:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out

4. Never use the passive when you can use the active

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent; and finally

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say something outright barbarous

But none of these six rules are relevant to the cited sentence's problems. Mirowski's sentence contains no foreign phrases or scientific words; its only verb is in the active voice; omitting some words would make it shorter but even less coherent; and its average word length (4.26 letters) is less than that of Propero's own text in this column (4.69 letters).

The most obvious problem with Mirowski's sentence is its unpalatable stew of mixed metaphors: a nightmare is casting a shroud in the guise of a contagion of the sort of paralysis that afflicts a deer caught in the headlights of a car. That's between four and seven distinct metaphorical systems in 19 words, depending on whether we take cast, guise, and paralysis to have any metaphorical force left.

But Orwell's rule doesn't tell us not to mix metaphors, it tells us not to use them, or at least not to use metaphors that we're "used to seeing in print". I concede that if Mirowski had avoided all commonly-seen metaphors, he would have been spared some embarrassment. But by that  standard, the Economist itself is full of a very bad writing. Let's take up Mirowski's metaphors one at a time, and look at the Economist's own text for examples.

The Economist headlines are rife with metaphorical nightmares:

Violence in Iraq: The nightmare returns
Nigeria: Waking from a nightmare
Investment banking: Dream turns to nightmare
Pitt's nightmare
Big music's digital nightmare
American retailers: Nightmare on Fifth Avenue
Cambodia's logistics nightmare
Spain's property crash: Builders' nightmare
Bagehot: A New Labour nightmare
Riots in Xinjiang: Beijing's nightmare

And there are plenty of metaphorical nightmares in the text as well:

As fund managers are finding, the latest effort from the American authorities to root out those of their citizens who have been hiding their assets overseas is creating a bureaucratic nightmare around the world.
Such nightmares are worse in India, where the courts move with Dickensian speed, or in China, where the legal system is patchy.
A new nightmare for greens: conserving water may encourage sprawl.
Is the United States' nightmare of “a second Cuba” coming true in Venezuela?
On the face of things, Rotterdam has the ingredients for a Eurabian nightmare.
ON SUNDAY Israel got an unexpected and unpalatable taste of its nightmare scenario: masses of Palestinians marching, unarmed, towards the borders of the Jewish state, demanding the redress of their decades-old national grievance.
For many firms, sending call centres overseas has turned into a nightmare.

In the Economist's text, we often encounter a metaphorical shroud (of secrecy, gloom, or mystery):

And the shroud of gloom is not as uniform as it looks from afar.
But for outsiders it helps unravel the all-enwrapping shroud of secrecy.
There is less of a shroud of secrecy surrounding the first world war.
Even in Paraguay its moral ambiguities have caused generations of leaders to shroud it in myth.
Mr Li likes to shroud his business manoeuvres in mystery.
NOT so long ago, the Federal Reserve was anxious to cloak itself in secrecy and shroud itself in “monetary mystique,” as Marvin Goodfriend, an American economist, has put it.
They shroud their operations in secrecy and are blamed for manipulating markets from Hong Kong to London.
As well as providing financial firepower and a network for sourcing deals, private-equity firms can shroud the identity of publicity-shy investors.
But increasingly they are fed up with the shroud of secrecy thrown over the Fukushima plant and the abandoned towns and villages where families had lived for centuries.

And there's a positive epidemic of metaphorical  contagion in Economist headlines:

Asian contagion
Euro crisis spillovers: Reverse contagion
American banks: Contagion? What contagion?
Political and market turmoil: Contagion effect
The Swahili coast: Contagion of discontent
Crises, crises everywhere: Atlantic contagion
Mexico's economy: Braced for contagion
Financial contagion: Mortgage flu
Ex-communist economies: The whiff of contagion
Grüne Sprösslinge, and the contagion of ideas

Nor, of course, is the Economist at all shy about using contagion in the body of stories:

This week, however, contagion spread to another and even more alarming place: Italy.
Some economists think a new form of financial contagion is spreading, via stockmarkets, in a way similar (if slower) to that in which Asia's financial crisis in 1997-98 infected one economy after the other.
Many Europeans fear that they have seen a fragment of their future: contagion spreading from one indebted country to the next, the breakdown of social order as public-sector jobs are cut, years of political indecision and the inevitable ousting (or withdrawal) of countries from the euro.
From that very moment, contagion spread like wildfire.

Deers are often found in Economist headlights:

Scott McClellan, his successor, had a sweaty, deer-in-the-headlights look as he robotically repeated the White House's phrase of the day.
Mr Zapatero was inexperienced, ill-prepared and unprepossessing; he was nicknamed “Bambi”, as he often looked like a startled fawn caught in the headlights.
Mr Biden is a smart, thoughtful guy, he's not going to go all deer-in-the-headlights during the vice-presidential debate, and his recent extracurricular activities suggest that he will help out if elected, instead of hiding out in the Naval Observatory.
He is smart and aggressive in debates, which would appeal to Democrats who remember John Edwards' deer-in-the-headlights problem with Dick Cheney in the 2004 vice-presidential debates.

And someone at the magazine is fascinated by the metaphor of one or more rabbits caught in headlights:

Japan, once seen as the engine of Asian growth, remains stuck in its third recession in a decade, its policymakers behaving like rabbits caught in the glare of oncoming car headlights, unable to get to grips with the massive structural reforms needed.
At the very least, his multi-screen office-cum-TV-studio must have told him how far the value of his stock options had shrunk when Ford's share price started diving (see chart) as the crisis grew, and management began to look like rabbits caught in the headlights of an SUV.
Yet academic publishers do not have the rabbit-in-the-headlights look that music executives did a few years ago.
Ever since their troubles began emerging in the early summer of 2001, America's airline industry has been like a rabbit caught in the headlights.
Italy and the euro: Rabbit in headlights.

And from time to time, the Economist's headlights metaphorically transfix even more exotic animals:

OVER the past three months, oil-producers have watched, transfixed like bustards caught in the headlights, as the price of their product has plummeted from around $18 a barrel to about $12.

I'll spare you lists of cast metaphors and paralysis metaphors from the digital pages of the Economist, though I'll note in passing that many dies, lights, shadows, palls, chills, and doubts are metaphorically cast therein.

Let me emphasize that (unlike Orwell) I see nothing wrong with any of these uses of often-seen metaphoral extensions of the sense of words, or common expressions with a metaphorical origin. But this small sample (of the much larger lists that are easily available from Google site search) should be enough to make the point: Orwell's number-one rule is so unhelpful that the Economist doesn't even pretend to try to follow it, any more than anyone else does.

Quoting Orwell's rules in the face of bad writing is like reciting paternosters in an out-of-control airliner: it may be comforting, but it doesn't solve the problem.

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61 Comments »

  1. Edward Vanderpump said,

    July 20, 2013 @ 2:00 pm

    My current favourite: "There's been a sea-change in the landscape."

  2. PD said,

    July 20, 2013 @ 2:16 pm

    One could make the argument that the Economist metaphors are following rule 6.

    [(myl) Except that it's hard to argue coherently that any piece of writing breaks (or for that matter follows) Orwell's rule six...]

  3. Y said,

    July 20, 2013 @ 2:55 pm

    Orwell is very explicit about mixed metaphors, even though it's not part of his "six rules":

    "The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash — as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot — it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking."

    Orwell seems a bit pedantic here, and maybe not every author always follows or should follow this guideline, but it's not a bad ideal to aim for.

  4. Rod Johnson said,

    July 20, 2013 @ 3:22 pm

    (I'm struck by your deers found in headlights, which could suggest that plurals of irregular nouns get regularized when they denote mentions of the word instead of uses—deer vs "deer"s.)

  5. Brett said,

    July 20, 2013 @ 3:49 pm

    @Y: This is off topic, but I wonder whether Orwell was being intentional ironic with "Fascist octopus," since the octopus was such a common antisemitic Nazi caricature. (The creature was frequently depicted with its arms wrapped around a globe; there's a swimwear store near my house with a similar image on its sign, and the similarity creeps me out every time I drive by it.)

  6. mollymooly said,

    July 20, 2013 @ 4:42 pm

    I think rabbits is the usual animal in British metaphorical headlights, whereas deer is for American ones. Thus an American contributor to the Economist can be Orwell-compliant by using "rabbit", and a Brit likewise by using "deer".

  7. Piotr Gąsiorowski said,

    July 20, 2013 @ 4:45 pm

    Here's another hapless journalist caught in a linguist's headlights. Bang!

  8. peter said,

    July 20, 2013 @ 5:27 pm

    And Orwell's rule #5 manifests his Little Englander xenophobia.

  9. John Roth said,

    July 20, 2013 @ 6:20 pm

    Not everyone thinks in visual images, or at least not everyone does so consciously. Even if a person does, a metaphor like "a deer in the headlights" does nothing if the person has never seen the deer's startle reaction of freezing in front of the oncoming car, rather than getting the heck out of the way. A fair number of the uses of that metaphor don't seem to imply that whatever is causing the deer to be startled is about to suffer a mischief as it collides with the deer.

  10. wykstrad said,

    July 20, 2013 @ 8:44 pm

    Orwell's rules make more sense if you realize that they are part of a larger essay, "Politics and the English Language," which spends a great deal of time on the problem of mixed metaphors, a problem which forms the basis for Rule 1. And referring to something foreboding as having "cast its shroud" over the situation is certainly a metaphor that has congealed into cliche through overuse, to say nothing of "deer-in-the-headlights paralysis."

    Likewise, Rule 2 refers much more to the complexity and exoticism of words than the letter count- by the definition Orwell uses in the essay, "guise," "contaigon," and "paralysis" are all "long" words- that is, they are communicating something very simple, but the author has used words that are more complex and less accurate than the passage requires. Simply changing the words to more commonly-used equivalents would not fix the sentence, but it would be the first step in making things more clear.

    It's important to remember that Orwell was concerned with how to write well, not how to avoid aggressively offensive writing. Based on "Politics and the English Language," the rules tend to boil down to using the components of language in an effective manner: metaphors, properly used, startle the reader into a new way of looking at the expression; to use metaphors as mindlessly as one of your air-crash paternosters, or to use them to inflate an underdeveloped thought into something approaching worthwhile writing, are ways of compensating for mediocrity rather than elevating decent language, and as such are a sub-optimal use of metaphor.

  11. Sybil said,

    July 20, 2013 @ 9:40 pm

    I happen to love mixed metaphors – I always assume they are deliberate, which is part of my love, and I admit that thinking they are inadvertent would make me love them less. I love them even when I hate what they are saying. Mixed media.

    So I couldn't figure out what anyone could find to object to in this.

  12. Cara Gillotti said,

    July 20, 2013 @ 10:55 pm

    I'm not convinced that the role of a headline is to startle the reader into new ways of seeing. And even when word count isn't a factor, clearly not every thought needs to be expressed in a new and exciting way.

    The idea of a mixed metaphor seems to *assume* that the writer is lazily hopping from metaphor to metaphor, and cannot be ingenuously subsuming what he or she considers to be a dead one into a new one. Mixed metaphors might not exist, at least not in the same way that lives ones do.

  13. Y said,

    July 20, 2013 @ 11:30 pm

    @Brett, The octopus is a common enough metaphor (see this essay on the octopus in propagandist maps.) I am sure Orwell is aiming at communist discourse, which does not lack octopuses. As a disgruntled communist himself, he was well versed in that style, and echoed it well in Animal Farm and elsewhere.

  14. Y said,

    July 21, 2013 @ 12:00 am

    I add that Orwell, when asked what Marxists thought of him, and he said he'd been called a "Fascist octopus" as well as a "Fascist hyena".

  15. Linda Seebach said,

    July 21, 2013 @ 9:43 am

    My fondly recalled mixed metaphor, undoubtedly in the thoughtless rather than the ingenious category, was a description of the landscape during the Yellowstone fires as "drenched in flaming embers."

  16. Faldone said,

    July 21, 2013 @ 2:42 pm

    I've seen plenty of deer on or near the road. Hit a few, too. Never saw the "deer in the headlights" phenomenon in real life. Mostly they either are in the process of trying to get out of my way or busy jumping into my way. That doesn't stop me from appreciating the metaphor.

  17. Jon said,

    July 21, 2013 @ 4:38 pm

    To claim the sentence is meaningless is silly: it's clear what the author is trying to say, even if his style is painfully overwrought.

    And Orwell was not a communist, he was a socialist opposed to totalitarianism of the left or right.

  18. Rod Johnson said,

    July 21, 2013 @ 8:25 pm

    Really? You think "Yet the nightmare cast its shroud in the guise of a contagion of a deer-in-the-headlights paralysis" is clear? Can you parse it for me?

  19. Zemyla said,

    July 21, 2013 @ 9:03 pm

    Honestly, this doesn't hold a candle to the world's worst mixed metaphor I've ever seen, immortalized in the Lyttle Lytton Contest:

    "He was marooned in the jaws of a human minefield, and with every step the noose grew tighter." – Jerry Izenberg, New Jersey Star Ledger

  20. Brett said,

    July 21, 2013 @ 9:56 pm

    @Rod Johnson: It doesn't parse for me on a casual reading, but as soon as I try to think it through I get something like: "During the crisis, a lot of people get too scared to act."

  21. Levantine said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 1:53 am

    peter, can you explain to me what's xenophobic about preferring everday English words to pretentiously used foreign terms?

  22. etv13 said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 3:05 am

    Shouldn't rule 3 be: If you can cut a word, cut it?

  23. Zubon said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 7:10 am

    etv13: "Omit needless words."

  24. Brian T said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 8:27 am

    A circa 1988 profile of singer Belinda Carlisle said that during her days of overindulgence she was "a one-woman time bomb drowning in a fairy tale gone bad."

  25. KeithB said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 9:13 am

    Is "contagion" actually a metaphor here? While it is not a biological contagion, I see no problem with a psycholgical or social contagion – a meme, in other words.

  26. davep said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 9:36 am

    Brett said (July 20, 2013 @ 3:49 pm) said:
    @Y: This is off topic, but I wonder whether Orwell was being intentional ironic with "Fascist octopus," "

    It would seem that Orwell didn't have a problem with the octopus per se. That is, the problem is that octopus was also a swan (with a song).

  27. KevinM said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 10:54 am

    @rod Johnson. Re: "I'm struck by your deers found in headlights etc."
    You may be overanalyzing. The writer was, I think, pluralizing "deer-the-word-appearing-in Economist-stories," not "deer-the-animal."

  28. Charles N said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 11:59 am

    Having seen a fair number of rabbits caught in headlights, I have to say they were almost always running away from cars, not frozen into immobility. But as they veered to the left or right to get out of the way, the sight of the closest headlight persuaded them to reverse course. Thus, for me at least, the metaphor has always suggested a willy-nilly indecision rather than paralysis.

  29. Dan Hemmens said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 2:03 pm

    You may be overanalyzing. The writer was, I think, pluralizing "deer-the-word-appearing-in Economist-stories," not "deer-the-animal."

    I think that's exactly what Rod Johnson was observing – that when counting word-mentions, the plural forms of words with irregular plurals are regularized. So it's one mouse and two mice, but three mentions of the word "mouse" would be three mouses.

    Of course it strikes me that when you're talking about word-mentions things like pluralization are always going to get a bit difficult, because you wind up having to think about things like plural forms of words that are already plural (so four mentions of the word "mice" would be four "mices" I assume, but that would make five mentions of the word "cats" five … catses? Now I'm sounding like Gollum).

  30. Dan Hemmens said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 2:34 pm

    With apologies for double posting:

    peter, can you explain to me what's xenophobic about preferring everday English words to pretentiously used foreign terms?

    I could be wrong, but I think it's the assumption that "everyday" and "English" are necessarily the opposites of "pretentious" and "foreign".

    Plenty of everyday words are foreign, plenty of pretentious words are English (or at least, have as much claim to be English as the "everyday" words with which they should apparently be replaced).

  31. Levantine said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 5:25 pm

    Dan Hemmens, it's clear from the rest of the rule, which mentions jargon and scientific terminology, that Orwell means only those foreign words whose use smacks of pedantry or unnecessary pretension. The substitution of 'Farsi' for 'Persian' is a good example. In some cases, the avoidance of the English equivalent can be quite misleading — leaving 'Allah' untranslated, for instance, obscures the fact that the word is merely the Arabic for 'God'. I don't think Orwell can be accused of being xenophobic in his advice.

  32. Rod Johnson said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 10:57 pm

    KevinM: yes, that's exactly what I'm talking about. That's what "mentions of the word instead of uses" means.

  33. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    July 23, 2013 @ 1:23 am

    "Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancien regime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis, status quo, gleichschaltung, weltanschauung, are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g., and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in the English language. Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers."

    I find words like status quo, predict, cul de sac, and extraneous perfectly ordinary and plain. It does seem a straightforwardly xenophobic idea to prefer a word just because it has a Saxon rather than a Latin root.

  34. Richard Brown said,

    July 23, 2013 @ 3:40 am

    The killed man….

    I have been seeing the above usage a lot recently and it is driving me mad. I know there is something wrong with it but what?

    The murdered man…is ok, but not this.Why?

    RB

  35. Levantine said,

    July 23, 2013 @ 4:15 am

    Jonathan Mayhew, you make a good point in that many of the words listed by Orwell do indeed seem perfectly ordinary and unpretentious, perhaps because usage has changed (Fowler considered 'mirror' an affected alternative for 'looking glass' back in the 1920s). Nevertheless, the notion that Orwell is being xenophobic really baffles me. I don't buy his etymological framing at all (Fowler actually complained about pretentious writers resorting to alien-sounding Saxonisms), and clearly the 'foreignness' of a word can change with time, but the overall point — that affected foreign terms with very obvious English counterparts are often used for showiness — is not a bad one. We've all come across restaurant menus that are full of French or Italian terms for things that have perfectly good English counterparts — is it really xenophobic to wish they were written in a language that didn't require one's smartphone to decode? (I don't mean the names of the dishes, but the texts that are supposed to be describing their contents.)

    Incidentally, I am Turkish by birth, and no Little Englander. And by 'English', I mean any word that has an established place in the language, regardless of its etymology.

  36. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    July 23, 2013 @ 4:42 am

    Surely a loan-word on a menu more often than not refers to a "loan-food"? Surely the diner goes to that kind of restaurant to have a pretentious, affected experience, one not possible in a different sort of place? It is not as though the unfamiliar vocabulary were unintentional, in such cases. Why assume a lack of pretense is always what one wants?

    "Mirror" dates back to middle-English so that is simply a shift in usage, like many others.

  37. David W said,

    July 23, 2013 @ 1:59 pm

    A jackboot thrown into the melting pot! You would end up with a veritable stew, then, wouldn't you?

  38. Dan Hemmens said,

    July 24, 2013 @ 11:24 am

    Dan Hemmens, it's clear from the rest of the rule, which mentions jargon and scientific terminology, that Orwell means only those foreign words whose use smacks of pedantry or unnecessary pretension.

    I wasn't making any particular claims about Orwell, just highlighting what I presumed that the original commenter considered xenophobic.

    Why, after all, a specific injunction against *foreign* words that smack of unnecessary pretension, rather than pretentious words *in general*?

    It's true that usage might have changed since Orwell's day, but I honestly doubt there has ever been a time when "deus ex machina" or "status quo" or "cul de sac" haven't been the most straightforward and intuitive words for an English speaker to use to describe those concepts (I couldn't name a single alternative for any one of them that doesn't sound enormously clunky). It really does seem to be foreignness qua foreignness that Orwell is objecting to here.

  39. Ted said,

    July 24, 2013 @ 1:14 pm

    I'm struck by your deers found in headlights

    Isn't that exactly backwards?

  40. peter said,

    July 24, 2013 @ 5:39 pm

    Levantine said (July 22, 2013 @ 1:53 am)

    "peter, can you explain to me what's xenophobic about preferring everday English words to pretentiously used foreign terms?"

    Well, we use a language which has borrowed foreign words for at least 2000 and perhaps 3000 years. So telling which are the true-blue "English" words from those with a foreign element is going to be a difficult undertaking. Every place name in England ending in "-by" is a borrowing that came with the viking colonists, for instance. Are we not to speak of those quintessential English places Derby or Rugby? So Orwell's rule #5 is not even operationally feasible.

    And even if the rule could be implemented, I don't understand why things foreign should be, tout court, less preferred to things native. Why should I always prefer English native words when I don't always prefer English native anything else? I eat oranges and olives and figs, products not native to England. Why should I give them up to eat sour apples that just happen to be have been grown here for a few centuries longer? What did the Angles and Celts ever do for us, I might ask.

    I would be delighted if you can suggest a different, rational explanation for the first part of Orwell's 5th rule. Xenophobia is the only rational explanation I can see for this ridiculous piece of normative absurdity.

  41. peter said,

    July 24, 2013 @ 5:51 pm

    The Guardian newspaper in 1989 skewered once and for all the stupidity of Orwell's rule #5 with an editorial responding to a recent French Academy excision of 2400 foreign words from French:

    "This concern with linguistic purity is clearly inspired by France’s envy of Anglo-Saxon practice, which, as is well known, sets its face like flint against all overseas importations. Regular visitors to London report with awe on the capacity of the English of all social classes for keeping the language clean. From the blase habitues of the London clubs – raconteurs, bon viveurs, hommes d’affaires – with their penchant for bonhomie and camaraderie, through the soi-disant bien pensants of the passe liberal press to the demi-monde of the jeunesse doree, where ingenues in risque decolletages dine a deux, tete a tete and a la carte with their louche nouveau riche fiances in brassieries and estaminets, pure English is de rigueur, and the mildest infusion of French considered de trop, deja vu, cliche, devoid of all cachet, a linguistic melange or bouillabaisse, a cultural cul-de-sac.

    The English want no part of this outre galere, no role in this farouche charade, no rapprochement with this compote. They get no frisson from detente with diablerie. And long may it remain so. “A bas les neologismes!” as you often hear people cry late at night on the Earl’s Court Road.”

  42. Rod Johnson said,

    July 24, 2013 @ 6:29 pm

    Ted: ha!

  43. Levantine said,

    July 25, 2013 @ 9:53 am

    Orwell is protesting against the privileging of Latin and Greek over English. It is the same privileging that has given rise to pseudo-grammatical 'rules' concerning split infinitives and prepositions at the end. He gets into hot water when he invokes the notion of Saxon etymologies (hardly useful for a language like English that contains so many borrowings) and when he lists foreign terms that do indeed have a useful (and often naturalised) place in English. But the instinct behind his advice is not, to my mind, xenophobic. I think he's trying to say what Fowler managed to communicate much more effectively — that good English is more often than not accessible English. Is it really that controversial to suggest that there are writers out there who overuse italicised foreign expressions? I can't be the only one to have encountered and been irritated by this phenomenon, and nor am I xenophobic for feeling this way.

  44. Levantine said,

    July 25, 2013 @ 10:00 am

    And to reiterate, I am not equating 'English' with 'Saxon'. English words are words that have an established place in the language, regardless of their origin.

  45. JS said,

    July 25, 2013 @ 8:20 pm

    ^ Second Levantine… whose view is entirely consistent with peter's Guardian satire, on my reading.

  46. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    July 26, 2013 @ 3:51 am

    Let's say good English is precise, nuanced English. I recently read an explanation by Orwell of the meaning of Animal Farm in which he uses status quo and laissez-faire in the same sentence. There are French and Latin expressions in English that simply don't have English equivalents with those exact nuances. Terms of art like Deus ex machina or laissez-faire or noblesse oblige. The problem is that Orwell proscribes exactly that sort of word / expression. A raconteur is not just a story-teller. There is a whole connotation of the word that is lost without the word raconteur itself. Similarly, ennui is not just boredom, and a suburban cul-de-sac is more than a "dead-end street."

  47. Levantine said,

    July 26, 2013 @ 5:38 am

    Jonathan Mayhew, I agree with you. I don't think Orwell's list of terms to avoid is helpful, and there are countless foreign expressions that convey meanings for which English has no precise equivalents. As with many who make such rules, Orwell is being reductive and inaccurate. All I am trying to say is that I don't think he can be accused of xenophobia, and that there is something to be said for watching how many unfamiliar or specialised terms (whether foreign or not) one incorporates into one's writing. If one is writing for a tiny readership, then fine, but I do think that the best writers are those who are both precise and accessible. In my own field, I'm encountering words like 'Farsi' and 'khalifa' more and more often — what on earth is wrong with 'Persian' and 'caliph'?

  48. Daniel Hemmens said,

    July 26, 2013 @ 7:40 am

    For what it's worth, as a British-English-speaking layperson, I've only ever heard the Persian language referred to as "Farsi", so to me "Persian" is actually the unfamiliar term to me. And if I was going to use the general language-naming-conventions I'm used to I'd probably expect it to be called something like "Iranian".

    I don't find it particularly unusual for a language to have a name that *isn't* the name of the country/geographical region/geopolitical entity it is or was spoken in. We don't call Latin "Roman" after all.

    I can't speak so much for using "khalifa" rather than "caliph" but might it be something to do with stressing that the word is being used in its technical sense, rather than as it is commonly understood by laypeople? I think that to most laypeople the word "caliph" is basically just a synonym for "king", rather than having the more technical meanings I assume it has in an academic context.

  49. Levantine said,

    July 26, 2013 @ 8:26 am

    'Iranian' is not used of the language. 'Farsi' has come into vogue since the '70s as a completely unnecessary replacement for 'Persian' — it would be like 'Deutsch' taking the place of 'German' (here's a good summary of the issue: http://www.payvand.com/news/05/dec/1063.html).

    'Khalifa' means nothing more to specialists than does 'caliph'. By using it, a writer is simply showing off his or her knowledge of the source language, Arabic. It would be like using 'papa' instead of 'po

  50. Levantine said,

    July 26, 2013 @ 8:26 am

    Sorry, my phone acted up. That last word should have been 'pope'.

  51. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    July 26, 2013 @ 8:55 am

    I've known Farsi for many years as simply the name of that language. It might have been called "Persian" before but I am 52 and don't remember those days.

  52. Levantine said,

    July 26, 2013 @ 9:05 am

    I'm only 31. It's called 'Persian' by the BBC, by the Academy of the Persian Language and Literature (in their English-language publications), and by every university language department I've ever come across.

  53. Matt said,

    July 26, 2013 @ 10:22 am

    I've always understood Farsi as the name of the variety of Persian spoken in Iran, as opposed to Tajik or Dari or Old Persian or whatever. But I don't know too much about Persian, and that might just be me, I guess.

  54. Levantine said,

    July 26, 2013 @ 12:40 pm

    Matt, some people do make that distinction, but it's not universal. Besides, I'm talking about the use of 'Farsi' to mean 'Persian' in general rather than any specific dialect.

  55. Piotr Gąsiorowski said,

    July 26, 2013 @ 5:16 pm

    "Persian" has the advantage of not being restricted chronologically to the modern period or politically to nay particular country. Modern Persian continues Middle Persian which continues Old Persian. I suppose some people tend to use a more exotic "local" word if they believe it's the politically correct thing to do (or perhaps they think a less familiar name looks more sophisticated). In the same vein, you can come across "the Inuit languages" (meaning Eskimo, and including Yupik), just because someone thinks that "Inuit" is the PC synonym of "Eskimo". "Inuit-Yupik" is technically more correct, but of course superflouos. I haven't seen "the Magyar language" for "Hungarian" very often yet, but given the current fashion I wouldn't be surprised if the linguistic trend-setters decided Hungarian must go the way of Peking.

  56. Piotr Gąsiorowski said,

    July 26, 2013 @ 5:17 pm

    For "nay" (line 2), read "any". Sorry.

  57. Levantine said,

    July 26, 2013 @ 5:36 pm

    Piotr, you may well be right about 'Magyar' ousting 'Hungarian'. The same thing can be seen with place names. Certain Turks (and I am myself Turkish by birth) are trying to bully the anglophone world into calling the country 'Türkiye', apparently because they don't like being associated with the bird. And there are those writers who think that 'Istanbul' must be spelt with a dotted capital I as it is in Turkish.

  58. Daniel Earwicker said,

    July 28, 2013 @ 5:32 pm

    Mixed cliches can be something of a gold mine field.

  59. Christine said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 8:23 am

    Can a metaphor evolve, through "erroneous" overuse, into a word with independent meaning? "Nightmare" does not meet Orwell's definition of metaphor as a word or phrase that calls up a visual image. Seems to me that "nightmare" has two closely-related but independent meanings: a bad dream, and a bad situation. When used in the latter sense, I don't think the reader has to mentally shift through "dream" to get the idea. It goes straight in. Unlike "deer in headlights."

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    [...] to have caused quite a stir as Mark Liberman, linguist and Language Log blogger, investigated the Economist's own language use. Another column by the Economist on the issue of style followed. Reference was made to George [...]

  61. Commenter, Your Grammar is a Fail. « Govment Blog said,

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