Metaphor wrestling

« previous post | next post »

Michael Birnbaum, "E.U. rejects Boris Johnson’s Brexit proposal, raising prospect of chaotic break within weeks", WaPo 10/3/2019:

“There are problematic points in the U.K.’s proposal, and further work is needed,” said European Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud.

Although British Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay had admonished that the ball was in the European Union’s court, Bertaud emphasized, “This work is for the U.K. to do, not the other way around.”

“We are not going to be the ones left holding the bag, the ball or any other kind of object,” she added — reflecting a fear on the European side that Johnson is setting them up to take the blame for a Brexit failure.

In the COCA corpus, the most common dozen nouns in the frame "holding the __" are bag, baby, phone, gun, door, line, knife, hand, reins, ball, book,  and camera.

In the iWeb corpus, it's bag, camera, ball, power, position, door, shift, phone, line, button, baby, and gun.

In the TV corpus, it's bag, gun, baby, knife, door, fort, murder, camera, phone, line, reins, bat.

The metaphor that the negotiators really need is someone holding the key — but that's uniformly further down the frequency lists — #56 in COCA, #19 in iWeb, and #16 in the TV corpus. At the moment, the odds of anyone finding the metaphorical key to this particular lock seem to be slim.



  1. Philip Taylor said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 4:43 am

    "At the moment, the odds of anyone finding the metaphorical key to this particular lock seem to be slim". Well, until a few second ago, I would have said that the odds of anyone citing the British gutter tabloid (I won't glorify it with the title "newspaper") The Sun in a contribution to Language Log were infinitesimally small, but I have just been proved wrong, so perhaps a key to the Brexit débâcle can be found after all !

    [(myl) I assumed that a gutter tabloid would be a reliable source for the posted ("Betfair"( betting odds, but maybe I was naive:


  2. sciamanna said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 5:28 am

    I think they meant "the baby". Try looking for "left holding the"?

  3. cervantes said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 8:43 am

    "Holding the bag" means you are the one caught with the money after a robbery, at least as far as I would use it.

    "Holding the ball" is approximately apropos,it means you're the one with the main responsibility for what to do next, equivalent to "the ball is in your court" since in tennis you don't hold the ball, you hit it with a racket.

    Holding the baby is not ordinarily metaphorical, although I suppose it could be used to imply responsibility; but holding the tar baby would also be apropos, that means you're stuck with a difficult problem.

  4. KeithB said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 8:54 am

    You don't hold a tar baby, it holds you!

  5. Cervantes said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 9:52 am

    Well, both. Once you grab it, you can't get rid of it, is the idea.

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 10:48 am

    I think that "to be left holding the baby" is idiomatic in British English, is used metaphorically rather than literally, and means that one is left with the responsibility for something (a problem, an mistake, whatever) for which one would sooner not be left responsible. Clearly the metaphorical baby is crying, needs its nappy changed, or similar.

  7. Stephen Hart said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 10:56 am

    I was also struck by "Stephen Barclay had admonished that"

    Google Ngram shows only a tiny fraction for "admonished that" vs. "admonished."

  8. Cervantes said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 11:42 am

    PT — Okay, not as common in the colonies, at least Massachusetts Bay and Rhode Island and Providence Plantations

  9. John Swindle said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 2:32 pm

    Bertaud's "or any other kind of object" should cover it.

  10. /df said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 2:36 pm

    Non-UK readers might be misled by Philip Taylor's assessment of the Sun. Leaving aside its politics and sentiments, it consistently leads the field in inventive word-play, even if its very high bar "Super Caley Go Ballistic – Celtic Are Atrocious" set a decade ago when Scotland's (then and now) top football (soccer) team Celtic lost unexpectedly to then lowly Inverness Caledonian Thistle was actually a re-hash of a Liverpool Echo headline from the 1970s (when Reds winger Ian "Cally" Callaghan starred and sadly "QPR atrocious") – as previously referenced here.

    Historically I would expect Sun hacks to be completely at home with betting odds but I'm not sure that they've understood the bet about a "2nd referendum" being held. There seems to be an enormous spread with "before 2020" at 16:1 (same odds for President Bernie Sanders) and "not before 2020" at 1:41 (now).

    Finally this article explains that political betting follows the punters and doesn't have any further magical predictive power.

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 6:02 pm

    Here are results from GloWbE (which anyone can use, but after 10 or 15 searches they want to you sign in and they start asking for money) for the search "left holding the *". "Bag" and "baby" are by far the most popular words,

    bag baby
    61 1 US
    26 0 CA
    7 17 GB
    2 9 IE
    10 8 AU
    1 5 NZ
    7 4 IN

  12. chris said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 8:04 pm

    Bertaud's "or any other kind of object" should cover it.

    It may be over-inclusive; would he really object to Europe being left holding the reins or the power?

    Holding the line or the fort might be a bit more dubious, though.

    And they definitely don't want to hold the hand (of Boris).

    Holding the gun or the knife would imply culpability, which they reject since this is a self-inflicted wound.

    P.S. I confess to being mystified by "holding the murder". "Holding the murder suspect for questioning" perhaps?

  13. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 8:41 pm

    If someone was using a British English idiom, "left holding the bag" would be the one I would expect. The phrase, from what I have read but have not found a citation for, comes from poaching. The bag holds the evidence of illegally captured rabbits (coneys) or other game that the gamekeeper or other official caught the poacher holding.

    An American English meaning implying the bag holds the proceeds of a robbery would seem a logical outgrowth of the British phrase. The U.S. never had, as far as I know, such strict rules about the ownership and theft of wildlife. (Although, to add detail, English estates had workers such as warreners and gamekeepers to husband rabbits and birds and provide game for aristocratic hunters. Sometimes the theft of wildlife would have been a theft of work product, not just of random, unmanaged animals.)

    "The Lincolnshire Poacher" is a well-known English folk song that includes a reference to the bag:

  14. Bob Ladd said,

    October 5, 2019 @ 1:35 am

    The first thing I noticed in the quote was the statement that "This work is for the U.K. to do, not the other way around." (The UK is for the work to do?) A brief Google search suggests that sloppy vice-versa has been covered in Language Log before, but rarely.

  15. John Swindle said,

    October 5, 2019 @ 3:50 pm

    @chris: You're right, of course, but "holding the reins" and the like would change the meaning. Bertaud's "holding the bag, the ball or any other kind of object" made her meaning crystal clear and also made it clear that she was aware that the expression could take more than one form. As to "holding the murder…", a Google search finds "murder weapon."

  16. John Ahearn said,

    October 6, 2019 @ 8:49 pm

    @Chris: I had the same problem. Similarly, I suppose "holding the shift" really means "holding the shift key to type a capital letter/symbol/whatever," and "holding the button" comes from "pressing and holding the button." Not sure that any of these are really alternatives to the original phrase.

  17. BZ said,

    October 7, 2019 @ 9:36 am

    My reading of this is that Bertaud originally said "left holding the bag" and then added the ball because she was responding to the ball being in her court, and then added "any other object" as she realized that the metaphor is already hopelessly muddled.

RSS feed for comments on this post