Thursday, March 22, 2007

The referents desk

“Sticks and stone may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

We’ve retained the words but lost the meaning of this magical childhood incantation. When I learned it, as a young child, the word hurt had to do with physical harm. There was no suggestion that my feelings weren’t or shouldn’t be hurt, only that, hey, look, I’m still in one piece and capable of standing to fight another day. The chant was used as a retort to the tormentor: You’ll have to do better than that if you really want to hurt me; your slur has no power over me; there is no magic in your nasty words, but there is magic in my response.

The modern critique—that it’s a lie, that people can truly be hurt (emotionally) by name-calling—ignores the original focus on the absence of real, physical injury and changes the focus to the supposed emotional harm caused by name-calling. The chant itself is seen as damaging to the self-esteem of the person who invokes it. Huh? I don’t get that. That’s a complete reversal of the original use.

[In that children today have graduated from sticks and stones to knives and guns, I think a child would be an idiot to actually use the above chant on a playground; but that’s not the point I’m making. We might also note that in the not-too-distant past it was considered normal for children to engage each other with sticks and stone; we’ve come a long way, baby.]

The more general problem

Many years ago I ran across a column filler in the New Yorker, under the heading “Our Forgetful Authors,” that quoted a line from an unmemorable new novel. The sentence described a character as being, to the best of my recollection, “a flaxen-haired beauty with tresses the color of wheat straw.” The point was that the author had lost the connection between the descriptive term “flaxen-haired” and its origin as a comparison to the color of flax, which is different from the color of wheat (being an unrelated crop and all).

Given that in 1890, approximately ninety percent of Americans lived in a rural environment, mostly subsisting on what they themselves produced on their own small farms, it is not surprising that a lot of the metaphorical referents in our language presume a familiarity with the commonplaces of that environment. And it is not surprising that today, because only a tiny fraction of Americans have any rural background at all, such figures of speech are often misapplied.

Going back further, to the adages we inherited from before there was a United States, we run into all sorts of things we’ve lost the original context for and therefore the original meaning of.

  • “A watched pot never boils.” Today I think we all assume this means that a process seems to take longer than it really does if you focus on it impatiently. I submit that its original meaning was an admonishment to the apprentice chef to keep an eye on the pot so as not to spoil the sauce by boiling it. (I could be wrong, but there is no internal evidence to decide the meaning one way or the other.)

  • “Three Blind Mice”: My guess is that the farmer’s wife originally cut out their eyes with a carving knife (hence their blindness) and that this was judged too gruesome and therefore . (No, I cannot confirm my guess with an , but I think the scholars have gone down a blind alley, so to speak.)
What’s my point?

My point is that this is an aspect of usage editors should pay attention to. When an author throws around stock phrases and common metaphors, partly we editors want to expunge them because of their triteness. But if we let them stand, we should at least examine whether they make sense in the context. If the editor doesn’t have a clear notion of the referent, chances are the reader won’t either. The editor can look it up and decide if it makes sense and then query the author as to whether it ought to be explained for the benefit of people who don’t look it up or rephrased to eliminate the problem.

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