Thursday, 6 November 2014

A classical column to rest your laurels on

One of my favourite Star Trek adventures is a Next Generation episode from 1991.
In it, Captain Jean-Luc Picard is stranded on a strange planet with the captain of an alien ship.
Normally, in the Star Trek universe, the most unfamiliar humanoids can communicate perfectly well. Their universal translator seamlessly renders all speech into late 20th-century American English. Very handy.
In this episode, though, Picard and Captain Dathon find they can't understand each other at all.
Frustrating. And puzzling, because they are using a lot of the same words but still can't make sense of what's being said.
A bit like watching a rap video, or being stuck on a bus with a load of Cockneys.
It all starts becoming clearer when Picard realises that the Tamarians speak entirely in metaphors.
Which is not, in fact, all that different from the way we speak. And most people, most of the time, don't even seem to realise they are doing it.
World your oyster (or your lobster)? OK, that may be a red herring... but they're all metaphors. In the case of the herring, a particularly charming one from the old sport of hound-trailing. Yes, really.
The language of sportspeople and commentators is especially rich in the unconscious use of metaphor. Often delightfully mixed.
“They've laid out their stall and parked the bus and we've got to run the channels and feed our man in the hole to try and open them up.”
Total gibberish. Unless you're a football devotee, in which case you understand perfectly what was just said.
Of course, you might think the attacking side would do better to get early ball to their wide men, expose their flanks and get in behind them – but you can still follow the argument. Even if you are tutting at my outdated use of “man in the hole” as if I didn't know that this season he's become a No.10, even if he's actually got a number five, 11 or 37 on his back. And may be the apex of a diamond.
With me so far? OK, how about this?
“Credit Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett for getting to Romo with an array of blitzes. The five sacks are the most allowed by the Cowboys since 2012. Four of those five came via inside linebackers and safeties, evidence of a great game called by Haslett.”
No, me neither. It's so opaque I'm not even sure how many metaphors there are there, let alone what they're supposed to mean. Captain Picard would have no trouble with it, though, I'm sure.
The sport, being described is, of course, the one known metaphorically as “gridiron”. Or, in American parlance, “football” - a rather weak metaphor used to describe a game in which an object only vaguely resembling a ball is passed not from foot to foot but from hand to hand.
Which, quite obviously, is just not cricket. Neither metaphorically nor literally.
Cricket, as everyone from the former British Empire – and no one else – fully understands, is a game in which if you have a short square leg you'll need extra cover, while if blessed with a long fine leg...
But I'm not here to make sense (as if anyone could) of the ins and outs of cricket. What I was setting out to do before I got waylaid by sports talk was to draw your attention to another joyous example of metaphor-mangling.
I'm not even sure who it was on the radio the other day. She was probably a politician – some junior minister perhaps – but I was totally distracted from what she was trying to say by the way she chose to say it.
“We're doing well,” she said. “But this isn't something we can rest our laurels on.”
You what?
It's a bit like the “fine toothcomb” people are forever employing to try to find things. Sometimes it's just a plain toothcomb. Ever seen one of those? What's it look like, and what's it for?
Well, actually, there is such a thing. It's a vaguely comb-shaped tooth in the mouth of a lemur or a tree-shrew – but I don't think anyone (except lemurs and tree-shrews) ever uses one to look for anything. Though you might, metaphorically or otherwise, use a fine-toothed comb.
Then there's the increasingly common assertion that “the proof is in the pudding”. What's that supposed to mean?
But back to those laurels. I assume you would never rest yours on anything. Though you might just rest on your laurels – once you've been awarded them in the form of a wreath or coronet to mark your victory in some sporting or political contest. Or to celebrate being awarded a Nobel Prize.
Personally, I'm not sure laurels are very comfortable to rest on anyway. I shan't rest on mine. I'll be back next week, probably turning again to more serious matters.
But the proof (i.e. the test) of that pudding will be in the eating.

No comments: