While reading an article posted by College Parent in her blog College Admissions Madness, I came across the following phrase: “…and every teenager is spoiled with too many luxuries.” It provoked one of those thoughts that has come in and out of my mind before (a la my first post), this one being, ‘Spoiled’? That sounds pretty bleak. Are children/teenagers like milk, with specific instructions like, ‘Keep Refrigerated’? Can you honestly ruin a child?
This sort of thing has been on my mind a lot lately, the words so integrated into our social vocabulary that we use them without thinking. It’s astonishing how many of them there are: simple phrases like, “No way!”, “No matter,” or “Do you mind?”. Recently, I’ve sort of taken a step back and have started to examine what I say and why I say it.
Take my own examples. “No way!”; what does it really mean? It’s a phrase indicating an incredulous response (for the most part). We drop the phrase without thinking, but when you break it down and consider it, it’s like saying, “There’s no way (‘way’ as means) that could be true.” Similarly with a phrase like, “No matter.” What does it mean? Probably something along the lines of, “It’s no matter (‘matter’ meaning an issue) worth worrying about.”
“Do you mind?” is a tricky one to pinpoint, though, and there are a lot of similar phrases that I have to ponder over for a while to figure out why they mean what they have come to mean. We use “Do you mind?” as a way of saying, “Do you care?”, but why? My very confused grasp of guessing the reasons behind things (I have no talent for it at all) seems to think that ‘mind’ evolved into ‘care’ by ‘mind’ having, at some point, a transititory definition like ‘being of the mindful opinion’ and eventually came to mean what it does now.
It’s an interesting thing to think about how much of our vocabulary is socially derived. By that, I mean the phrases purely social in usage with no real meaning anymore, because of course our entire language is socially derived. It seems like such an insignificant thing to think about, I know, but consider a language that is pure colloquialism; such a language would be impossible to translate, and even harder to learn.
I’m very heavily reminded of a passage from Orwell’s Politics and the English Language; in fact, it says with clarity in one paragraph exactly what I spent several struggling to articulate (the asterix footnote is my own):
DYING METAPHORS. A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically ‘dead’ (e. g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are*: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a ‘rift’, for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase.
OPERATORS OR VERBAL FALSE LIMBS. These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic phrases are render inoperative, militate against, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, give grounds for, have the effect of, play a leading part (role) in, make itself felt, take effect, exhibit a tendency to, serve the purpose of, etc., etc. The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purpose verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render. In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining). The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the -ize and de- formations, and the banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un- formation. Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as with respect to, having regard to, the fact that, by dint of, in view of, in the interests of, on the hypothesis that; and the ends of sentences are saved by anticlimax by such resounding commonplaces as greatly to be desired, cannot be left out of account, a development to be expected in the near future, deserving of serious consideration, brought to a satisfactory conclusion, and so on and so forth.
George Orwell, Politics and the English Language
I applaud Orwell’s superior grasp of the English language. I really do. Politics and the English Language is solid proof that this is a man who knows how to write. For those of us who weren’t already convinced with Animal Farm and 1984, I mean. Ah, to have Orwell’s writing prowess… sadly, I’m guilty of many of the writing sins he condemns.
*Yes, most of these examples are quite obscure nowadays, but they were apparently very popular in mid-20th century Britain.