Sunday, 17 September 2017

A flash in the pan

The orgy of on-the-spot fruitless speculation occasioned by the IED (Ineffectual Emphatic Deflagration) at Parsons Green brought to mind a phenomenon that I have mentioned before: the way metaphors freeze in time a technology that is time-specific and doomed to being superseded. In this post I started with this observation:
A few weeks ago I mentioned (here) a possible future post about the way obsolete arms technology is used to form metaphors that persist long after the arms technology is relegated to museums; it's not just arms-related vocabulary of course. Someone who has never seen a stair-rod or heard a telephone bell may give someone a bell and report that it's coming down in stair-rods. But arms-related (and armed-conflict-related) vocabulary is a particularly fruitful source of metaphor.
 One of this sort of metaphor that I listed was this:
Flash in the pan – in a flint-lock, the trigger sparked off an explosion in a pan which itself set off the main explosion. Sometimes there was a flash in the pan, but the main charge was unaffected.
In other words, as veterans of the Parsons Green coverage will  recognize, a flash in the pan was a deflagration. Of course, the exact configurations of initiator and explosive don't match; but the ignitio praecox of the Parsons Green bucket bomb was a deflagration.

But this was not the only case that the bomb coverage threw up. There were two more in the accounts of the expected investigation (though I suspect my memory may have added the verb). Police would be 'scouring  CCTV footage'. They would, of course, not scour anything; this is a metaphor (and not, I now realize, related to technology, so make that one more case – footage).

CCTV may once have used film, and a few possibly still do. But surely today they produce MPEG files (file – there's another one). But it's film that is measured in feet, and people who refer to footage in the context of CCTV (or other media) are evoking a past technology (not that long in the past, and I'm sure most users [today] of the expression could work out where the word comes from; but, Trump willing, to a 22nd-century user, the technological background will be much more opaque.)
When I said 'make that one'  two paras ago, I hadn't thought about a new development in the field of CCTV: if the CCTV automatically sends the file to a remote site (or even to the cloud – discussed here if you're that way inclined) it doesn't really deserve to be called Closed-Circuit TV)

In fact, film or tape has spawned quite a few of these fossils (traces of a former state)...
This metaphor commonly used by linguistics academics came immediately to mind as I read Oliver Kamm's review of How Language Began: The Story of Humanity’s Greatest Invention when in the first paragraph he writes "unlike physical organisms, the languages of prehistory leave no fossilised traces". This is true, in a strictly prosaic non-figurative sense. But since philologists regularly refer to fossils, my background has led me to almost forget that it is a metaphor. (Read on, though: everything is.)
... slow-motion, cut, fast-forward, rewind, flashback, inter-cut ...
<apologia theme="inter-cut">
There may be objections to this one, as it's use chiefly to refer to film technology (although cut itself freezes a bygone scalpel-and-sticky-tape process). But it is sometimes used to refer to other sorts of story-telling – in a novel, for example, several stories may be inter-cut.
...I'm sure there are many more. It's rather like the exercise of taking a square yard of meadow and counting the different species it contains; the longer you look at film and tape metaphors, the more you find (another illustration of Guy Deutscher's reef of dead metaphors view of language):
Guy Deutscher, in his fascinating The Unfolding Of Language: The Evolution of Mankind`s greatest Invention calls language (in a brilliant metaphor about metaphors - a 'meta-metaphor'?)  'a reef of dead metaphors'. In fact, Deutscher says more; it's not just words that were born phoenix-like from dead metaphors; dead metaphors are 'the alluvium from which grammatical structures emerge'.

More here
Thankfully, though, I've just heard on the News that all but one of the victims of that flash in the pan are now out of hospital . Which is not to say that it was a damp squib (see what  I did there?)

But the pyracantha ("fire-thorn-plant") is demanding the resumption of its annual trim, suspended when the heavens opened a while ago.


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