Ask Mint | Mushrooming metaphor

Ask Mint | Mushrooming metaphor
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First Published: Mon, Aug 27 2007. 01 04 AM IST
Updated: Mon, Aug 27 2007. 01 04 AM IST
The Indo-US nuclear deal has given rise to a continuing debate in the media and in party forums. The English language skills of our leaders and political commentators are being put to good use. The tone of the vociferous polemic reminds us of the 18th century debate on conciliation with America in the British parliament.
One result of the debate has been an outpouring of metaphors from every quarter.
Speakers of Indian English liberally embellish their speeches with metaphors coming from Shakespearean times down to the cyber era. What does it matter if they use idioms and phrases that native scholars reject as clichés? These scholars believe that clichés are dead metaphors and deserve to be immured. But our speakers are in no mood to give them up. Many clichés have been put back into use by Indian speakers. In two days of debate, our leaders came up with close to one hundred of them.
Leading the pack (there you go!) was marriage as metaphor, a fitting depiction of the uneasy relationship between government and the allies on the Left. Soon, a second metaphor was superimposed. On the TV screen, you saw the graphic, “Marriage on the Rocks”. We have two metaphors mingled here, but that does not jar on us because we have come across the phrase once too often in daily life.
Reacting to the situation, almost everybody said, the honeymoon is over. There was talk of the ultimate solution, divorce. Combining a metaphor with a pun, Abhishek Singhvi said that occasional marital differences should not be treated as martial.
Many of the metaphors came from sports. Sitaram Yechury said we should wait for the PM’s response, otherwise we would be jumping the gun. This idiom refers to the starting pistol in a race, in which some athletes start running even before the gun is fired. The most often repeated sports phrase was about the ball being in the other court. The reference may be to any of several games, though what comes to mind first is tennis. A commentator on a TV news channel said that the two sides were eyeball to eyeball. This sounds like a posture in a pugilistic contest. But originally, this was a military term, from the 1962 Cuban crisis. On hearing the news of the Soviet ships turning back, Dean Rusk said, “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”
Many Congress sympathizers spoke about calling the Left’s bluff. This is from poker, in which someone pretends to hold a winning set of cards. The others then call upon the player to prove his strength. In the present context, this means the Left should execute the?threat?they’ve?been?making.
Animal metaphor is represented by the remark made by a pro-nuke leader who, commenting on the Left’s ultimatum, said their bark was worse than their bite. Stronger words were used by another critic of the Left who wanted them to be left to stew in their juices. This kitchen term means cooking something in its own juice?and,?by?extension,?making one suffer the consequences of one’s actions. The outcome of a mid-term election may not be to the Left’s liking.
In?this?age of technology, it’s only natural that everybody draws upon vocabulary from that area. Singhvi said the level of static in our discussions may go up or go down and we should not be worried about it. Still, the Congress camp went into hectic consultation among the allies, and a TV commentator rightly said that the Congress had gone into overdrive. Another frequently heard phrase was the threat of the Left’s decision to pull the plug. At first glance, this phrase means to cut off the supply of electricity to a device so that it stops working. But the meaning is not always so innocuous. It can mean removing life-supporting equipment?that?keeps?a patient alive, which can be a cruel thing to do. It doesn’t make matters better to know that still earlier, it referred to removing the stopper from a toilet system. If the plug is not to be pulled, the Left said, the PM must go for the pause button.
Sailing seemed to provide a number of metaphors. A government spokesman said we have only one guiding pole star, the national interest. But there was another hint of a possible sailing disaster. The DMK watched and analysed the situation, and its message to the Congress was, in the words of a reporter, “We are sailing in the same boat, please make sure that this boat is not rocked by anyone.” There were a few interesting general idioms. From the American Indians comes the metaphor a peace pipe: this refers to the long-stemmed ceremonial pipe, which was smoked and passed around when negotiations for peace were concluded. A synonym of this is to bury the hatchet, also from an American tribal source.
Metaphor is instant poetry. At the time of its first use, it is a wonderful creative act. When repeated in and out of context, it loses its sheen and becomes a cliché. But no English cliché will be allowed to die out in Indian English.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column. Comments can be sent to plainspeaking@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Aug 27 2007. 01 04 AM IST