Thursday, 28 August 2014

Bercow in Toyland

One of the BBC news programmes on Monday last featured a gloriously mixed metaphor that conjured up a picture of someobody – I can't remember who (someone involved in the Bercow/Ozgate kerfuffle) – in a pedal-car, knees pumping frantically in an attempt to avoid an accident:
 'he's back-pedalling to avoid a car crash'. 
If this person had done a U-turn as well my cup – as I'm an avid collector of mixed metaphors – would have run over (pausing, of course, for many a slip).

This led me to reflect on the effect of transport on the language.

Starting at the pedestrian end, when you match your actions precisely to those of someone else, you march in lockstep with them (and if you have the same objectives you march to the beat of the same drum. You may follow in the footsteps of somebody, in which case you're walking the same path. The future is further down the road, or (if it's very remote) over the horizon – too far to walk,

Taking a step up from the purely pedestrian, horses figure largely in the language, whether in the humdrum doings of a pack-horse or in the night-time visitation of a nightmare. If you let someone do what he wants, you give him his head. The opposite is keeping them on a tight rein. And if they're keen to get started they are champing at the bit. If you want to see what they can do you put them through their paces (the paces being walk, trot, canter, and gallop). If you don't know what they're likely to do, they're a dark horse. I've said elsewhere that I'm not a believer in the Alastair Cook derivation of cinch – though I'm often a sucker for folk etymology (once I've got the bit between my teeth ).
Incidentally, that post's title reminds me of another equine metaphor: back in the saddle; and if someone's had an unfortunate accident that took the wind out of their sails (if you'll excuse a momentary diversion to water-borne craft) they have to get back on the horse.
But maybe you ignore the dark horse's unexpected wishes, and ride roughshod over them.

Furniture can sometimes be named after horses as well. Think of a cheval mirror. And if the digression from transport to funiture strikes you as extreme, think of meubles (Fr) muebles (Sp) etc.

<explanatory_note audience="non-linguist">
Those words obviously connote movement to me, but I imagine it's worth noting  that French  meubles are 'moveables', while a building is un immeuble.

In fact, come to think of it, this picture unites furniture and transport and explains the very derivation of the word metaphor:

See full source here

But where was I – got it, cheval  mirror. But for people who don't run to fancy foreign words, the horse is kept below stairs as a clothes horse. In between upstairs and downstairs, artists in Italy use yet another horsey metaphor to hold their paintings while they're working: a cavaletto is an easel (this time derived from a diminutive of the Latin CABALLU(M) – and classicists should see my earlier posts, passim [here, for example], for an explanation of that conventional notation.
CABALLU(M) was a lower class of horse than an equus; more of a nag, which makes it ironic that it is the root of chivalry (a less obvious scion than 'cavalry').
On life's journey, a lucky man will be accompanied by a helpmeet, a fellow traveller, to share the burden; in Latin, a woman would put a man sub jugum (under the yoke – as in Yugoslavia (and see what came of that yoking). A man didn't put his wife under that kind of trapping; he just led her (astray?): uxorem ducere. But let's return to transport

A procession involving horses is a cavalcade – there's that CABALLU(M) again. But in America they wanted a similar word for a procession of cars. So they knocked the horse part off the word, and substituted motor for it in motorcade.

I have a Crystal reference for that somewhere, I think, but it'll have to wait for an update (which'll have various thoughts about the internal combustion engine as well). But for now I must get on.


Update 2013.08.30.18:20 – Added red bit.
Update 2014.08.31.19:10 –  Updated footer
Update  2014.09.02.16:25 – Added this PS

I've found that reference, and it's not in a Crystal book. (I'm pretty sure he's mentioned this somewhere, but I can't find it.)
It's from a Pelican, which I read in 1970 (no doubt in preparation for Cambridge Entrance exams): Brian Foster's  The Changing English Language. That (if you follow the link) is a later edition. The Pelican edition seems to be Out of Print, or 'OP' as we used to say in my Grant & Cutler days – discussed here. My Pelican, though badly foxed, has survived MrsK's reforming zeal throughout its 35-year shelf-life (that is, 45; but only 35 in the family library!)
 He writes:
'Cavalcade', etymologically a procession  of horsemen, has given rise in American English to a series of words in which the -cade element denotes the idea of 'spectacular display', e.g. aquacade, musicade and motorcade. Of these only 'motorcade' has penetrated into British use.... It remains to be seen  how productive this ending will be in Britain....
Well, he was writing in 1968 (or before), so I think we can stop holding our breath; -cade's hopes of becoming a productive suffix in British English, can wave forlornly to that slow-moving motorcade, or cortège, that follows many a linguistic speculation like this

But elsewhere automobile-based metaphors pervade the language. A person who is not at their best can be said to be 'not firing on all four [cylinders]'. Rather than rush you can 'put the brakes on' (or, with a nod to former times, you can 'hold your horses'). If you're in a hurry you either 'put the pedal to the metal' (which must come from American English, as the wordplay is better with an American accent) or 'step on it' or 'burn rubber'. The point where, for the walker 'the shoe pinches' is where 'the rubber meets the road'. And while we're on the subject of tyres, assessing the suitability of something in a desultory way, with no clear intention of buying it (either literally or figuratively,) is 'kicking the tyres'. People who need to get moving should 'get their a$$ in gear' and someone who's making progress is 'going through the gears'.

But apart from these metaphors that are 'hard-coded' into the language, cars provide a source of all sorts of figurative references – not fixed metaphors, but one-off metaphorical references.  I had a Musical Director once who, when asking us to make a sudden effort, said 'spin the wheels a bit'. I've never met this in any other context, but we all knew perfect well what he meant.

As another example of our culture referring to motor technology, much software today has a central control module called the 'dashboard'. Of course, it's not just cars that have dashboards. But the software engineers who coined the usage knew dashboards from their cars  and knew that everybody else would too.

On the BBC news recently (or quite possibly The Westminster Hour as it was in the mouth of a politician talking about another politician) I heard a usage that's new to me: Someone (name escapes me, but 'the sword of truth' and Ford Open Prison leap to mind  – got it, Neil Hamilton) was 're-treading himself' as a potential UKIP candidate. A retread  [noun] is a used tyre that has been beefed up so that it looks fairly new but is a bit suspect and is of course cheaper than a new tyre; but I'd never heard the word verbified. And as we've already got the word 're-branding' I doubt if  're-treading' has, as they say, 'much mileage' as the sort of metaphor that future ESOL students will be required to learn by heart. But it was extraordinarily apt in the context.

That must be all for now, but I wouldn't be surprised if more examples spring to mind...

Update  2014.09.03.22:25 – Added this PPS

PPS  That quote was from The Westminster Hour of 31 August. You can still catch it on iPlayer if you're quick and in the right part of the world. It's about 33'30"  into the main programme. But there's a clip here. I didn't get the words quite right; it was
...people like Neil Hamilton are trying to retread  themselves as UKIP candidates...

(note for US readers: 'UKIP' is British English for 'TEA party' (roughly).)

Update  2014.09.29.12:05 – Added afterthoughts in blue.

Update  2015.11.09.14:35 – Added PPPS

A few more horsey ones:

Don‘t look a gift-horse in the mouth and the presumably related long in the toothpresumably related because the length of the teeth was what horse-buyers were looking for when they opened horses‘ mouths. And. on the subject of horse trading, we mustn't forget horse-trading.

<auto-biographical note>
This reminds me of a bit of French used as local colour in the translations I once read of the Three Musketeers books (in Everyman editions kept in that bookcase). Whenever people rode somewhere urgently – as was their wont in those days    – they  rode ventre-à-terre [="belly-to-earth"]. English's preferred metaphor in this case (though referring to more modern transport technology) would be flat-out (or either of two metaphors already mentioned burning rubber or even pedal-to-the-metal).
</auto-biographical note>
Everyman Dumas; see source here

 Mammon When Vowels Get Together V5.2: Collection of Kindle word-lists grouping different pronunciations of vowel-pairs. Now complete (that is, it covers all vowel pairs –  but there's still stuff to be done with it; an index, perhaps...?) 

And here it is: Digraphs and Diphthongs . The (partial) index has an entry for each vowel pair that can represent each monophthong phoneme. For example AE, EA and EE are by far the most common pairs of vowels used to represent the /i:/ phoneme, but there are eight other possibilities. The index uses colour to give an idea of how common a spelling is, ranging from bright red to represent the most common to pale olive green to represent the least common.

I'm thinking about doing a native iBook version in due course, but for now Mac users can use Kindle's own (free) simulator.

Also available at Amazon: When Vowels Get Together: The paperback.

And if you have no objection to such promiscuity, Like this

Freebies (Teaching resources:  nearly 45,500 views  and over 6,100 downloads to date**. They're very eclectic - mostly EFL and MFL, but one of the most popular is from KS4 History, dating from my PGCE, with over 2,300 views and nearly 1,000 downloads to date. So it's worth having a browse.)

** This figure includes the count of views for a single resource held in an account that I accidentally created many years ago.

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