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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Clichés and the "Idiom Principle"

One of Orwell's sillier pieces of writing advice is ""Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print." Orwell advises "scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness." But then wouldn't he have to also scrap the metaphorical use of the verb "scrap" and the cliché phrase "has outworn its usefulness"? My point is not that Orwell is a hypocrite, that he himself breaks his own rules: that would be all too easy. Rather, the advice is simply incoherent and impossible to follow. Words tend to fall into statistical probable clusters, and part of being a language-user is to fall into some of those patterns along with everyone else. We scream in agony, or are "abundantly clear." We don't just have a vocabulary of words, but a vocabulary of idiomatic expressions. As a teacher of a foreign language, I am constantly correcting unidiomatic Spanish, things that would make no sense at all to a native speaker of Spanish. What Orwell calls dead metaphors are just idiomatic phrases. We call them clichés because of old printer's jargon. You could keep the moveable type for a particular phrase together in one place so you didn't have to reset it every time. Another word for this was a stereotype. Knowing clichés or idiomatic expressions and using them correctly is part of being competent in a language.

I'm not saying that you should reach for the cliché as your first resort, or that you should never try to reduce your unthinking usage of them. I try not to use the phrase "makes a valuable contribution to the field" in a book review, for example, because that is THE cliché phrase in that genre. But generally speaking, clichés are simply the way things happen to be said in a particular language.

In linguistics this is known as "chunking." Ben Zimmer of Language Log and The New York Times explains it like this:

The insights that are being put into practice have to do with "chunking" — the way that we learn and process language in prefabricated strings of words, or "lexical chunks." Native speakers of a language like English take for granted how much we rely on these chunks, and we tend not to appreciate their significance in the creation of linguistic fluency. But acquiring competency in a language isn't all about mastering rules of grammar and finding words to fill the functional slots, despite the syntactic emphasis in formal linguistics that has been championed by Noam Chomsky and his followers. A counter-current in linguistics since the 1960s has focused on what the late British scholar John Sinclair called "the idiom principle," or the tendency of certain words to cluster together with certain other words in their vicinity.

So we know in English someone can outwear her welcome, or something can outwear its usefulness. This verb has certain acceptable metaphorical uses. *"I've outworn that movie" doesn't really cut it.

I'm thinking of teaching my next advanced language course (a language course, but at the highest level for undergraduate Spanish majors) on idioms and proverbs. In my view, idioms are like truncated proverbs, or else proverbs are idiomatic phrases that take the form of entire sentences. The main weakness in the Spanish of very advanced learners is precisely this sense of the idiomatic principle. They can translate word by word and even make it grammatically correct, but they are translating chunks of English rather than adopting new idiomatic patterns. I'll let you know how it works out.


Ms Baroque said...

I think there's a difference between 'idiom as truncated proverb' and what George Orwell was talking about in his great essay. He was describing the danger to meaning itself of the sloppy thought - or absence of thought - that is signified by use of tired old clichés. Not all idioms are tired old clichés, which is why he specifies "which has outworn its usefulness" - a phrase which has not outworn its usefulness in his sentence, because it contains the crux of his point!

The point of "Politics and the English Language" is ultimately to show how uninquisitive writing leads to unquestioning reading, in a cycle wherein both readers and writers are blind to the truth because they are relying on tired clichés rather than observation and thought. Also, that people who are used to not understanding things will accept things without understanding. Of course, his big project was to show how this general acceptance of platitude and obfuscation can be exploited for political ends, and even to create oppression - a message we would do well to heed e'en now!

In fact, "Politics and the English Language" - written at the height of the Second World War, as a plea against the bad writing that serves propaganda - stands at the head of the modern movement for Plain English. Certainly good understandable English is desirable, but the modern Plain English campaigns often mangle GOOD English in the service of making it (formulaically) PLAIN. I'm sure Orwell knew as much as anyone about how highly figurative English is.

What I think you're talking about is something like apocryphal wisdom. In poetry people talk about the "dead metaphor" as one to be avoided because it is stale and will have no effect on the reader - it won't conjure up an image - often because the literal sense of it no longer makes any sense to us. I sometimes wonder about it. It's a shame to lose, as you say, that wisdom from when people DID speak in a lively, observational way. The proverbial angle you mention is fascinating - as much cultural as linguistic - and could even be used to help people become more observational again.

Orwell might even agree - getting rid of all figurative speech wasn't what he was getting at!

Jonathan said...

I wish people would stop defending this essay. Only Strunk and White have done more damage to people's thinking about language than Orwell has. Just think about it: you shouldn't use a metaphor that you are used to seeing in print! His stupid condemnation of litotes, etc...