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Title: Society for Pure English, Tract 11 - Three Articles on Metaphor
Author: Society for Pure English
Language: English
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By E.B., H.W. Fowler & A. Clutton-Brock


_At the Clarendon Press_




The business of the writer is to arouse in the mind of his reader the
fullest possible consciousness of the ideas or emotion that he is

To this end he suggests a comparison between it and something else
which is similar to it in respect of those qualities to which he
desires to draw attention. The reader's mind at once gets to work
unconsciously on this comparison, rejecting the unlike qualities and
recognizing with an enhanced and satisfied consciousness the like
ones. The functions of simile and metaphor are the same in this

Both simile and metaphor are best when not too close to the idea they
express, that is, when they have not many qualities in common with it
which are not cogent to the aspect under consideration.

The test of a well-used metaphor is that it should completely fulfil
this function: there should be no by-products of imagery which
distract from the poet's aim, and vitiate and weaken the desired

A simile, in general, need not be so close as a metaphor, because the
point of resemblance is indicated, whereas in a metaphor this is left
to the reader to discover.

When a simile or metaphor is from the material to the immaterial, or
vice versa, the analogy should be more complete than when it is
between two things on the same plane: when they are on different
planes there is less dullness (that is, less failure to produce
consciousness), and the greater mental effort required of the reader
warrants some assistance.

The degree of effort required in applying any given metaphor should be
in relation to the degree of emotion proper to the passage in which it
is used. Only those metaphors which require little or no mental
exertion should be used in very emotional passages, or the emotional
effect will be much weakened: a far-fetched, abstruse metaphor or
simile implies that the writer is at leisure from his emotion, and
suggests this attitude in the reader.--[E.B.]


Live and dead metaphor; some pitfalls; self-consciousness and mixed

1. Live and Dead Metaphor.

In all discussion of metaphor it must be borne in mind that some
metaphors are living, i.e. are offered and accepted with a
consciousness of their nature as substitutes for their literal
equivalents, while others are dead, i.e. have been so often used that
speaker and hearer have ceased to be aware that the words are not
literal: but the line of distinction between the live and the dead is
a shifting one, the dead being sometimes liable, under the stimulus of
an affinity or a repulsion, to galvanic stirrings indistinguishable
from life. Thus, in _The men were sifting meal_ we have a literal use
of _sift_; in _Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as
wheat_, 'sift' is a live metaphor; in _the sifting of evidence_, the
metaphor is so familiar that it is about equal chances whether
_sifting_ or _examination_ will be used, and a sieve is not present to
the thought--unless, indeed, some one conjures it up by saying _All
the evidence must first be sifted with acid tests_, or _with the
microscope_; under such a stimulus our metaphor turns out to have been
not dead, but dormant. The other word, _examine_, will do well enough
as an example of the real stone-dead metaphor; the Latin _examino_,
being from _examen_ the tongue of a balance, meant originally to
weigh; but, though weighing is not done with acid tests or microscopes
any more than sifting, _examine_ gives no convulsive twitchings, like
_sift_, at finding itself in their company; _examine_, then, is dead
metaphor, and _sift_ only half dead, or three-quarters.

2. Some pitfalls. A, Unsustained Metaphor; B, Overdone Metaphor; C,
Spoilt Metaphor; D, Battles of the Dead; E, Mixed Metaphor.

A. Unsustained Metaphor

_He was still in the middle of those twenty years of neglect which
only began to lift in 1868_. The plunge into metaphor at _lift_, which
presupposes a mist, is too sudden after the literal _twenty years of
neglect_; years, even gloomy years, do not lift.

_The means of education at the disposal of the Protestants and
Presbyterians of the North were stunted and sterilized._ 'The means at
disposal' names something too little vegetable or animal to consort
with the metaphorical verbs. Education (personified) may be stunted,
but means may not.

_The measure of Mr. Asquith's shame does not consist in the mere fact
that he has announced his intention to ..._ Metaphorical measuring,
like literal, requires a more accommodating instrument than a stubborn

B. Overdone Metaphor

The days are perhaps past when a figure was deliberately chosen that
could be worked out with line upon line of relentless detail, and the
following well-known specimen is from Richardson:--

     _Tost to and fro by the high winds of passionate control, I
     behold the desired port, the single state, into which I
     would fain steer; but am kept off by the foaming billows of
     a brother's and sister's envy, and by the raging winds of a
     supposed invaded authority; while I see in Lovelace, the
     rocks on one hand, and in Solmes, the sands on the other;
     and tremble, lest I should split upon the former or strike
     upon the latter_.

The present fashion is rather to develop a metaphor only by way of
burlesque. All that need be asked of those who tend to this form of
satire is to remember that, while some metaphors do seem to deserve
such treatment, the number of times that the same joke can safely be
made, even with variations, is limited; the limit has surely been
exceeded, for instance, with 'the long arm of coincidence'; what
proportion may this triplet of quotations bear to the number of times
the thing has been done?--_The long arm of coincidence throws the
Slifers into Mercedes's Cornish garden a little too heavily. The
author does not strain the muscles of coincidence's arm to bring them
into relation. Then the long arm of coincidence rolled up its sleeves
and set to work with a rapidity and vigour which defy description_.

Modern overdoing, apart from burlesque, is chiefly accidental, and
results not from too much care, but from too little. _The most
irreconcilable of Irish landlords are beginning to recognize that we
are on the eve of the dawn of a new day in Ireland_. 'On the eve of'
is a dead metaphor for 'about to experience', and to complete it with
'the dawn of a day' is as bad as to say, _It cost one pound sterling,
ten_ instead of _one pound ten_.

C. Spoilt Metaphor

The essential merit of real or live metaphor being to add vividness to
what is being conveyed, it need hardly be said that accuracy of detail
is even more necessary in metaphorical than in literal expressions;
the habit of metaphor, however, and the habit of accuracy do not
always go together.

_Yet Taurès was the Samson who upheld the pillars of the Bloc._

_Yet what more distinguished names does the Anglican Church of the
last reign boast than those of F.D. Maurice, Kingsley, Stanley,
Robertson of Brighton, and even, if we will draw our net a little
wider, the great Arnold?_

_He was the very essence of cunning, the incarnation of a book-thief._

Samson's way with pillars was not to uphold them; we draw nets closer,
but cast them wider; and what is the incarnation of a thief? too, too
solid flesh indeed!

D. Battles of Dead Metaphors

In _The Covenanters took up arms_ there is no metaphor; in _The
Covenanters flew to arms_ there is one only--_flew to_ for _quickly
took up_; in _She flew to arms in defence of her darling_ there are
two, the arms being now metaphorical as well as the flying; moreover,
the two metaphors are separate ones; but, being dead, and also not
inconsistent with each other, they lie together quietly enough. But
dead metaphors will not lie quietly together if there was repugnance
between them in life; e'en in their ashes live their wonted fires, and
they get up and fight.

_It is impossible to crush the Government's aim to restore the means
of living and working freely_. 'Crush' for baffle, 'aim' for purpose,
are both dead metaphors so long as they are kept apart, but the
juxtaposition forces on us the thought that you cannot crush an aim.

_National military training is the bedrock on which alone we can hope
to carry through the great struggles which the future may have in
store for us_. 'Bedrock' and 'carry through' are both moribund or
dormant, but not stone-dead.

_The vogue of the motor-car seems destined to help forward the
provision of good road-communication, a feature which is sadly in
arrear_. Good road-communication may be a feature, and it may be in
arrear, and yet a feature cannot be in arrear; things that are equal
to the same thing may be equal to each other in geometry, but language
is not geometry.

They are cyphers living under the _shadow_ of a great man.

He stood, his feet _glued_ to the spot, his eyes _riveted_ on the

The Geddes report is to be _emasculated_ a little in the Cabinet, and
then _thrown_ at the heads of the Electorate.

Viscount Grey's suggestion may, in spite of everything, prove the
_nucleus_ of _solution_.

The superior stamina of the Oxonian told in no _half-hearted measure_.
[Even careful writers are sometimes unaware of the comical effect of
some chance juxtaposition of words and ideas, whereby a dormant
metaphor is set on its legs. Thus Leslie Stephen in his life of Swift
wrote: _Sir William Temple, though he seems to have been vigorous and
in spite of gout a brisk walker, was approaching his grave_. And again
when he was triumphantly recording the progress of agnosticism he has:
_Even the high-churchmen have thrown the Flood overboard_. [ED.]]

E. Mixed Metaphors

For the examples given in D, tasteless word-selection is a fitter
description than mixed metaphor, since each of the words that conflict
with others is not intended, as a metaphor at all. 'Mixed metaphor' is
more appropriate when one or both of the terms can only be consciously
metaphorical. Little warning is needed against it; it is so
conspicuous as seldom to get into speech or print undetected.

_This is not the time to throw up the sponge, when the enemy, already
weakened and divided, are on the run to a new defensive position_. A
mixture of prize-ring and battlefield.

In the following extract from a speech it is difficult to be sure how
many times metaphors are mixed; readers versed in the mysteries of
oscillation may be able to decide:

     _No society, no community, can place its house in_ _such a
     condition that it is always on a rock, oscillating between
     solvency and insolvency. What I have to do is to see that
     our house is built upon a solid foundation, never allowing
     the possibility of the Society's life-blood being sapped.
     Just in proportion as you are careful in looking after the
     condition of your income, just in proportion as you deal
     with them carefully, will the solidarity of the Society's
     financial condition remain intact. Immediately you begin to
     play fast and loose with your income the first blow at your
     financial stability will have been struck._

A real poet losing himself in the _meshes_ of a foolish _obsession_.

Johnson tore the _hearts_ out of books ruthlessly in order to extract
the _honey_ out of them expeditiously. Are we to let the _pendulum_
swing back to the old _rut_? Those little houses at the top of the
street, _dwarfed_ by the _grandiloquence_ on the opposite side, are
too small, too.

3. Self-consciousness and Mixed Metaphor.

The gentlemen of the Press regularly devote a small percentage of
their time to accusing each other of mixing metaphors or announcing
that they are themselves about to do so (What a mixture of metaphors!
If we may mix our metaphors. To change the metaphor), the offence
apparently being not to mix them, but to be unaware that you have done
it. The odd thing is that, whether he is on the offensive or the
defensive, the writer who ventures to talk of mixing metaphors often
shows that he does not know what mixed metaphor is. Two typical
examples of the offensive follow:

_The _Scotsman_ says: 'The crowded benches of the Ministerialists
contain the germs of disintegration. A more ill-assorted majority
could hardly be conceived, and presently the Opposition must realize
of what small account is the manoeuvring of the Free-Fooders or of any
other section of the party. If the sling be only properly handled, the
new Parliamentary Goliath will be overthrown easily enough. The stone
for the sling must, however, be found on the Ministerial side of the
House, and not on the Opposition side.' Apparently the stone for the
sling will be a germ. But doubtless mixed feelings lead to mixed
metaphors._ In this passage, we are well rid of the germs before we
hear of the sling, and the mixture of metaphors is quite imaginary.

Since literal benches often contain literal germs, but 'crowded
benches' and 'germs of disintegration' are here separate metaphors for
a numerous party and tendencies to disunion, our critic had ready to
his hand in the first sentence, if he had but known it, something much
more like a mixture of metaphors than what he mistakes for one.

_'When the Chairman of Committees--a politician of their own
hue--allowed Mr. Maddison to move his amendment in favour of secular
education, a decision which was not quite in accordance with
precedent, the floodgates of sectarian controversy were opened, and
the apple of discord--the endowment of the gospel of
Cowper-Temple--was thrown into the midst of the House of Commons.'
What a mixture of metaphor! One pictures this gospel-apple battling
with the stream released by the opened floodgates._ In point of fact,
the floodgates and the apple are successive metaphors, unmixed; the
mixing of them is done by the critic himself, not by the criticized;
and as to _gospel-apple,_ by which it is hinted that the mixture is
triple, the original writer had merely mentioned in the _gospel_
phrase the thing compared by the side of what it is compared to, as
when one explains _the Athens of the North_ by adding _Edinburgh._

Writers who are on the defensive apologize for _change_ and _mixture_
of metaphors as though one was as bad as the other; the two sins are
in fact entirely different; a man may change his metaphors as often as
he likes; it is for him to judge whether the result will or will not
be unpleasantly florid; but he should not ask our leave to do it; if
the result is bad, his apology will not mend matters, and if it is not
bad no apology was called for. On the other hand, to mix metaphors, if
the mixture is real, is an offence that should have been not
apologized for, but avoided. Whichever the phrase, the motive is the
same--mortal fear of being accused of mixed metaphor.

_...showed that Free Trade could provide the jam without recourse
being had to Protective food-taxes: next came a period in which (to
mix our metaphors) the jam was a nice slice of tariff pie for
everybody, but then came the Edinburgh Compromise, by which the jam
for the towns was that there were to be..._ When _jam_ is used in
three successive sentences in its hackneyed sense of consolation, it
need hardly be considered in the middle one of them a live metaphor at
all; however, the as-good-as-dead metaphor of jam _is_ capable of
being stimulated into life if any one is so foolish as to bring into
contact with it another half-dead metaphor of its own (i.e. of the
foodstuff) kind, and it _was_, after all, mixing metaphors to say the
jam was a slice of pie; but then the way of escape was to withdraw
either the jam or the pie, instead of forcing them together down our
throats with a ramrod of apology.

_Time sifts the richest granary, and posterity is a dainty feeder. But
Lyall's words, at any rate--to mix the metaphor--will escape the blue
pencil even of such drastic editors as they_. Since all three
metaphors are live ones, and _they_ are the sifter and the feeder, the
working of these into grammatical connexion with the blue pencil does
undoubtedly mix metaphors. But then our author gives us to understand
that he knows he is doing it, and surely that is enough. Even so some
liars reckon that a lie is no disgrace provided that they wink at a
bystander as they tell it, even so those who are addicted to the
phrase 'to use a vulgarism' expect to achieve the feat of being at
once vulgar and superior to vulgarity.

_Certainly we cannot detect the suggested lack of warmth in the speech
as it is printed, for in his speech, as in the Prime Minister's, it
seems to us that (if we may change the metaphor) exactly the right
note was struck_.

_We may, on the one hand, receive into our gill its precise content of
the complex mixture that fills the puncheon of the whole world's
literature, on the other--to change the metaphor--our few small
strings may thrill in sympathetic harmony to some lyrical zephyrs and
remain practically unresponsive to the deep-sea gale of Aeschylus or

Why, yes, gentlemen, you may change your metaphors, if it seems good
to you, but you may also be pretty sure that, if you feel the
necessity of proclaiming the change, you had better have abstained
from it.

_Two of the trump cards played against the Bill are (1) that 'it makes
every woman who pays a tax-collector in her own house', and (2) that
'it will destroy happy domestic relations in hundreds of thousands of
homes'; if we may at once change our metaphor, these are the notes
which are most consistently struck in the stream of letters, now
printed day by day for our edification in the_ Mail. This writer need
not have asked our leave to change from cards to music; he is within
his rights, anyhow, and the odds are, indeed, that if he had not
reminded us of the cards we should have forgotten them in the
intervening lines, but how did a person so sensitive to change of
metaphor fail to reflect that it is ill playing the piano in the
water? 'A stream of letters', it is true, is only a picturesque way of
saying 'many letters', and ordinarily a dead metaphor; but once put
your seemingly dead yet picturesque metaphor close to a piano that is
being played, and its notes wake the dead--at any rate for readers who
have just had the word _metaphor_ called to their memory.--H.W.


Metaphor becomes a habit with writers who wish to express more emotion
than they feel, and who employ it as an ornament to statements that
should be made plainly or not at all. Used thus, it is a false
emphasis, like architectural ornaments in the wrong place. It demands
of the reader an imaginative effort where there has been no such
effort in the writer, an answering emotion where there is none to be
answered. And the reader gets the habit of refusing such effort and
such emotion; he ceases even to be aware of metaphors that are used
habitually. He may not consciously resent them; but unconsciously his
mind is wearied by them as the eye by advertisements often repeated.
By their sameness they destroy expectation so that, even if the writer
says anything in particular, it seems to be all generalities.

Here is an instance of habitual metaphor, not manufactured for this
tract, but taken from an article by a well-known writer. He is
speaking of the career of Mr. Lloyd George:

     There was nothing like it in the histories of the ancient
     European monarchies, hide-bound by caste and now lying on
     the scrap-heaps of Switzerland and Holland. In the more
     forward nations, the new republics, men have indeed risen
     from humble beginnings to high station, but not generally by
     constitutional means and usually only (as now in Russia) by
     wading to their places through blood. The dizzy height to
     which Lloyd George has attained, not as a British statesman
     only but also as a world celebrity, seems to leave the
     foreign nations breathless. It is a spectacle that has of
     itself some of the thrill and fascination of romance.

Here are metaphors that might be used, or have been used, so as to
surprise the reader; but in this case they are stock-ornaments to a
passage that needs no ornament. If the metaphors in the first sentence
were alive to us they would be mixed; at least the transition from
monarchies hide-bound by caste to monarchies lying on scrap-heaps
would be too sudden; but we hardly notice it because we hardly notice
the metaphors. And there is an inconsistency in the notion of rising
by wading which, again, we do not notice only because we are so used
to rising and wading as metaphors that both have lost their power as
images. Mr. Lloyd George has waded to such a dizzy height that he
seems to leave foreign nations breathless; and we should be breathless
at the thought of such an impossibility if the metaphors were not

It is indeed the mark of a dead metaphor that it escapes absurdity
only by being dead. The term has been used for metaphors that have
lost all metaphorical significance; but these, perhaps, are better
called buried metaphors. I prefer to use the word _dead_ of metaphors
not yet buried but demanding burial. 'Risen from humble beginnings' is
perhaps a buried metaphor; 'wading to their places through blood' is a
dead one. It has been used so often that it jades instead of
horrifying us; it is a corpse that fails to make us think of corpses.
But in the next sentence the writer returns to the metaphor of rising
and elaborates it so that it is no longer buried, though certainly
dead. We are vaguely aware of the sense of this passage, but the
metaphors are a hindrance, not a help, to our understanding of it.

Writers fall into habitual metaphor when they fear that their thought
will seem too commonplace without ornament; and, because the motive is
unconscious, they choose metaphors familiar to themselves and their
readers. The article from which I have quoted contains many such
metaphors. Mr. Lloyd George is 'like other men only cast in bigger
mould'. He is 'clearly no plaster saint'. 'You cannot think of him in
relation to the knock-out blow except as the man who gives, not
receives, it.' 'He has never lost his head on the dizzy height to
which he has so suddenly attained. He is clearly in no danger of the
intoxicating impulse of the people who find themselves for the first
time on great eminences, to leap over. In a word, he is not spoiled.'
Here the writer, as he would put it, gives himself away. All that
metaphor means only that Mr. George is not spoiled, and the fact that
he is not spoiled would be established better by instances than by

Then we are told that some of Mr. George's feats 'seem to partake of
the nature of legerdemain'. 'He sways a popular assembly by waves of
almost Hebraic emotion.' 'No man has ever had his ear closer to the
ground and listened more attentively to the tramp of the oncoming
multitudes.' He 'held Great Britain's end up' at the International
conference. A 'magnificent tribute was paid to him by Earl Balfour'
but it 'did not put him alone on a pinnacle'. And then we read of the
whirligig of time, of 'clouds of misunderstanding which point to the
coming of a storm'; of how 'foreign nations suddenly became aware that
a new star had swum into the world's ken'; of how 'the situation of
this country is perilous with so much Bolshevik gunpowder moving
about', and how 'it has required a strong heart and a clear head to
keep the nation from falling either into the sloughs of despond or the
fires of revolution'.

Some of these are metaphors that were excellent in their first use and
original context; but they lose their excellence if repeated in any
context where they have not been discovered by the emotion of the
writer but are used by him to make a commonplace appear passionate.
Then they seem an unfortunate legacy from poetry to prose; and it is a
fact, I think, that our prose now suffers from the richness of our
past poetry. Even the prose writers of the Romantic movement regarded
prose as the poor relation of poetry; they did not see that prose has
its own reasons for existing, its own state of being and its own
beauties. They had the habit of writing about Shakespeare in
Shakespeare's own manner, which, in later plays such as _Antony and
Cleopatra_, is often a fading of one metaphor into another so fast
that the reader's or listener's mind cannot keep pace with it:

     O sovereign mistress of true melancholy,
     The poisonous damp of night disponge upon me,
     That life, a very rebel to my will,
     May hang no longer on me: throw my heart
     Against the flint and hardness of my fault;
     Which, being dried with grief, will break to powder.
     And finish all foul thoughts.

The metaphors here, though instinctive rather than habitual, are
excessive even for the dying speech of Enobarbus. The style is the
worst model for prose, yet it has persisted as a mere habit in the
prose of writers who fear to be prosaic and who are prevented by that
habit from saying even what they have to say.

The principles of composition, whether verse or prose, are based on
the fact that the unit of language is not the word, or even the
phrase, but the sentence. From this it follows that every word and
every phrase gets its meaning from the sentence in which it occurs;
and so that words and phrases should be used freshly on each occasion
and, as it were, recharged with meaning by the aptness of their use.
Every sentence should, like a piece of music, establish its own
relation between the words that compose it; and in the best sentences,
whether of prose or verse, the words seem new-born; like notes in
music, they seem to be, not mere labels, but facts, because of the
manner in which the writer's thought or emotion has related them to
each other. But habitual metaphor prevents this process of relation;
it is the intrusion of ready-made matter, with its own stale
associations, into matter that should be new-made for its own
particular purpose of expression. Phrases like--The lap of luxury,
Part and parcel, A sea of troubles, Passing through the furnace,
Beyond the pale, The battle of life, The death-warrant of, Parrot
cries, The sex-war, Tottering thrones, A trail of glory, Bull-dog
tenacity, Hats off to, The narrow way, A load of sorrow, A
charnel-house, The proud prerogative, Smiling through your tears, A
straight fight, A profit and loss account, The fires of martyrdom, The
school of life--are all ready-made matter; and, if a writer yields to
the temptation of using them, he impedes his own process of
expression, saying something which is not exactly what he has to say.
He may, of course, attain to a familiar metaphor in his own process of
expression; but if he does, if it is exactly what he has to say, then
it will not seem stale to the reader. Context may give life to a
metaphor that has long seemed dead, as it gives life to the commonest
words. If an image forces itself upon a writer because it and it alone
will express his meaning, then it is his image, no matter how often it
has been used before; and in that case it will arrest the attention of
the reader. But the effect of habitual and dead metaphor is to dull
attention. When a phrase like 'the lap of luxury' catches the eye, the
mind relaxes but is not rested; for we are wearied, without exercise,
by commonplace.

Further, the use of dead metaphor weakens a writer's sense of the
connexion between mood and manner. All the metaphors which I have
quoted are fit for the expression of some kind of emotion rather than
for plain statement of fact or for lucid argument; yet they are used
commonly in statements of fact and in what passes for argument. Indeed
one of their evils is that they make a writer and his readers believe
that he is exercising his reason when he is only moving from trite
image to image. If eloquence is reason fused with emotion, writing, or
speaking, full of dead metaphors is unreason fused with sham emotion.
I add in illustration a further list of dead metaphors lately noticed:
'Branches of the same deadly Upas Tree. Turning a deaf ear to. The
flower of our manhood. Taking off the gloves. Written in letters of
fire. Stemming the tide. Big with possibilities. The end is in sight.
A place in the sun. A spark of manhood. To dry up the founts of pity.
Hunger stalking through the land. A death grip. Round pegs (or men) in
square holes. The lamp of sacrifice. The silver lining. Troubling the
waters, and poisoning the wells. The promised land. Flowing with milk
and honey. Winning all along the line. Casting in her lot with. The
fruits of victory. Backs to the wall. Bubbling over with confidence.
Bled white. The writing on the wall. The sickle of death. A ring fence
round. The crucible of. Answering the call. Grinding the faces of the
poor. The scroll of fame.'--A. CLUTTON-BROCK.


We all know the people--for they are the majority, and probably
include our particular selves--who cannot carry on the ordinary
business of everyday talk without the use of phrases containing a part
that is appropriate, and another that is pointless or worse; the two
parts have associated themselves together in their minds as making up
what somebody has said, and what others as well as they will find
familiar, and they have the sort of pleasure in producing the
combination that a child has in airing a newly acquired word. There
is, indeed, a certain charm in the grown man's boyish ebullience, not
to be restrained by thoughts of relevance from letting the exuberant
phrase jet forth. And for that charm we put up with it when a speaker
draws our attention to the methodical by telling us there is a method
in the madness, though method and not madness is all there is to see,
when another's every winter is the winter of his discontent, when a
third cannot complain of the light without calling it religious as
well as dim, when for a fourth nothing can be rotten outside the State
of Denmark, or when a fifth, asked whether he does not owe you 1s. 6d.
for that cab fare, owns the soft impeachment.

A slightly fuller examination of a single example may be useful. The
phrase to _leave severely alone_ has two reasonable uses--one in the
original sense of to leave alone as a method of severe treatment, i.e.
to send to Coventry or show contempt for, and the other in contexts
where _severely_ is to be interpreted by contraries--to leave alone by
way not of punishing the object, but of avoiding consequences for the
subject. The straightforward meaning, and the ironical, are both good;
anything between them, in which the real meaning is merely to leave
alone, and _severely_ is no more than an echo, is pointless and vapid
and in print intolerable. Examples follow: (1, straightforward) _You
must show him, by leaving him severely alone, by putting him into a
moral Coventry, your detestation of the crime_; (2, ironical) _Fish of
prey do not appear to relish the sharp spines of the stickleback, and
usually seem to leave them severely alone_; (3, pointless) _Austria
forbids children to_ _smoke in public places; and in German schools
and military colleges there are laws upon the subject; France, Spain,
Greece, and Portugal leave the matter severely alone_. It is obvious
at once how horrible the faded jocularity of No. 3 is in print; and,
though things like it come crowding upon one another in most
conversation, they are not very easy to find in newspapers and books
of any merit; a small gleaning of them follows:

_The moral_, as Alice would say, _appeared to be that, despite its
difference in degree, an obvious essential in the right kind of
education had been equally lacking to both these girls_ (as Alice, or
indeed as you or I, might say).

_Resignation_ became a virtue of necessity _for Sweden_ (If you do
what you must with a good grace, you make a virtue of necessity;
without _make_, a virtue of necessity loses its meaning).

_I strongly advise the single working-man who would become a
successful backyard poultry-keeper_ to ignore the advice of Punch,
_and to secure a useful helpmate_.

_The beloved lustige Wien_ [merry Vienna] _of his youth had_ suffered
a sea-change. _The green glacis ... was blocked by ranges of grand new
buildings_ (Ariel must chuckle at the odd places in which his
sea-change turns up).

_Many of the celebrities who in that most frivolous of
watering-places_ do congregate.

_When about to quote Sir Oliver Lodge's tribute to the late leader,
Mr. Law_ drew, not a dial, _but what was obviously a penny memorandum
book_ from his pocket (You want to mention that Mr. Bonar Law took a
notebook out of his pocket. But pockets are humdrum things. How give a
literary touch? Call it a poke? No, we can better that; who was it
drew what from his poke? Why, Touchstone, a dial, to be sure! and
there you are).--H.W.F.


We have a constant flow of correspondence, and we are afraid the
writers must think us unpractical, incompetent, or neglectful, because
we give their inquiries no place in our tracts; they may naturally
think that it is our business to pass judgement on any linguistic
question that troubles them; but most of these queries would be
satisfactorily answered by reference to the _O. E. D._, which we do
not undertake to reprint; in other cases, where we are urged to
protest against the common abuse of some word or phrase, we do not
think (as we have before explained) that it is worth while to treat
any such detail without full illustration, and this our correspondents
do not supply. We propose now to demonstrate the situation by dealing
with a small selection of these abused words, which may serve as

       *       *       *       *       *


The human mind likes a good clear black-and-white contrast; when two
words so definitely promise one of these contrasts as _explicit_ and
_implicit_, and then dash our hopes by figuring in phrases where
contrast ceases to be visible--say in 'explicit support' and 'implicit
obedience', with _absolute_ or _complete_ or _full_ as a substitute
that might replace either or both--, we ask with some indignation
whether after all black is white, and perhaps decide that _implicit_
is a shifty word with which we will have no further dealings. It is
noteworthy in more than one respect.

First, it means for the most part the same as _implied_, and, as it is
certainly not so instantly intelligible to the average man, it might
have been expected to be so good as to die. That it has nevertheless
survived by the side of _implied_ is perhaps due to two causes: one is
that _explicit_ and _implicit_ make a neater antithesis than even
_expressed_ and _implied_ (we should write _all the conditions,
whether explicit or implicit_; but _all the implied conditions;
implied_ being much commoner than _implicit_ when the antithesis is
not given in full); and the other is that the adverb, whether of
_implicit_ or of _implied_, is more often wanted than the adjective,
and that _impliedly_ is felt to be a bad form; _implicitly_, preferred
to _impliedly_, helps to keep _implicit_ alive.

Secondly, there is the historical accident by which _implicit_, with
_faith, obedience, confidence_, and such words, has come to mean
absolute or full, whereas it originally meant undeveloped or potential
or in the germ. The starting-point of this usage is the ecclesiastical
phrase _implicit faith_, i.e. a person's acceptance of any article of
belief not on its own merits, but as a part of, as 'wrapped up in',
his general acceptance of the Church's authority; the steps from this
sense to unquestioning, and thence to complete or absolute or exact,
are easy; but not every one who says that implicit obedience is the
first duty of the soldier realizes that the obedience he is describing
is not properly an exact one, but one that is involved in acceptance
of the soldier's status.--[H.W.F.]

It seems to us (by virtue of this 'historical accident') that in such
a phrase as the _implied_ or _implicit conditions_ of a contract,
there is a recognized difference of meaning in the two words.
_Implied_ conditions, though unexpressed, need not be hidden, they are
rather such as any one who agreed to the main stipulation would
recognize as involved; and the word _implied_ might even carry the
plea that they were unspecified because openly apparent. On the other
hand _implicit_ conditions are rather such as are unsuspected and in a
manner hidden.--[ED.]


A correspondent complains that the adverb 'almost' is being supplanted
by 'practically'. 'The true meaning of "practically" (he writes) is
"in practice" as opposed to "in theory" or "in thought"; for instance,
_Questions which are theoretically interesting to thoughtful people
and practically to every one_, or again, _He loves himself
contemplatively by knowing as he is known and practically by loving as
he is loved._' And he finds fault with the _O.E.D._, whence he takes
his quotations, for not condemning such phrases as these, _The
application was supported by practically all the creditors_, and, _He
has been very ill but is now practically well again_.

The word is no doubt abused and intrudes everywhere. _The Times_
writes of a recent gale, _Considerable damage was done by the gale in
practically every parish in Jersey_, and again of a bridge on the
Seine that _The structure has practically been swept away_; but it
seems that in the sense of 'for practical purposes' it can be defended
as a useful word. For instance, a friend, leaving your house at night
to walk home, says, _It is full moon, isn't it?_ and you reply
_Practically_, meaning that it is full enough for his purpose. You
might say _nearabouts_ or _thereabouts_ or _sufficiently_, but you
cannot say _almost_ or _nearly_ without implying that you know the
full moon to be nearly due and not past. In such cases it might be
argued that 'practically' is truly opposed to 'theoretically', but
'actually' is rather its opposite. 'Practically' implies an undefined
margin of error which does not affect the situation.


A correspondent quotes: _For the last three years I literally coined
money_, and, _My hair literally stood on end_. The common misuse of
this word is so absurd that it would not be worth while to protest
against it, if its daily appearance in every newspaper did not show
that it was tolerated by educated people. Mr. Fowler writes:

'We have come to such a pass with this emphasizer that where the truth
would require us to acknowledge our exaggeration with, "not literally,
of course, but in a manner of speaking", we do not hesitate to insert
the very word that we ought to be at pains to repudiate; such false
coin makes honest traffic in words impossible. _If the Home Rule Bill
is passed, the 300,000 Unionists of the South and West of Ireland will
be_ literally thrown to the wolves. _The strong "tête-de-pont"
fortifications were rushed by our troops, and a battalion crossed the
bridge_ literally on the enemy's shoulders. In both, _practically_ or
_virtually_, opposites of _literally_, would have stood.'


This word, like _infiniment_ in French, is commonly used for
'extremely', and it is pedantic to object to it by insisting always on
its full logical meaning; but it should be avoided where measurable
quantities are spoken of; for instance, one may say _to indoctrinate
the mob with philosophical notions does infinite harm_, but to say
that _England is infinitely more populous than Australia_ is absurd.
That one can rightly call atoms infinitely small means that they are
to our senses immeasurable, and the word, as it here carries wonder,
may, like other conversational expletives, have an emotional force,
and can therefore be sometimes well used even where its exaggeration
is apparent. As when a man heightens some assertion with a 'damnable,'
he intends by the colour of his speech to warn you that his conviction
is profound, and that he is in no mood to listen to reason, so the
exaggeration of 'infinite' may have special value by giving emotional
colour to a sentence.

On the above principles there will be doubtful cases. For instance,
was Mr. Lloyd George justified the other day in saying, _If you cut
down expenditure to the lowest possible limit, the war debt would
still be so enormous that ... the expenditure for this country is
bound to be infinitely greater than before the war?--The Times_, Oct.


The English reply to the American Invitation was despatched last
October. The text of it is as follows:

'To Professor Fred Newton Scott.


We thank you heartily for the letter addressed to us by Professors
James Wilson Bright, Albert Stanburrough Cook, Charles Hall Grandgent,
Robert Underwood Johnson, John Livingston Lowes, John Matthews Manly,
Charles Grosvenor Osgood, and yourself.

We regret that so long a time should have passed before our joint
reply could be despatched: but our intentions have in the meanwhile
been privately made known to you. We now write to give you formal
assurance of the interest and sympathy with which your proposal has
been received, and to thank you for your generous suggestion that we
in the mother country of our language should take the lead in
furthering the project.

Since then we, both Americans and British, are in complete agreement
as to our aims, we have only to decide on the best means and devise
the best machinery that we can to attain them.

We feel that this practical question needs very careful consideration
and consultation: and we have therefore appointed a small committee of
five persons on our side to confer and draw up a table of suggestions
which can be submitted to you. We would invite you on your side to
take a similar step: we could then compare our respective proposals
and agree upon a basis on which to work. There are two dangers which
we feel it especially desirable to avoid: one is the establishment of
an authoritative academy, tending inevitably to divorce the literary
from the spoken language; the other is the creation of a body so large
as to be unmanageable. We have also to cope with the difficulty of
co-ordinating the activities of members representing many branches in
widely scattered territories. Our committee for consultation on these
matters consists of Henry Bradley, Robert Bridges, A.T.Q. Couch, Henry
Newbolt, and J. Dover Wilson: and we shall be glad if you can tell us
that you approve of our preliminary step and will be willing to
consider our suggestions when they are ready.

                       (Signed)        BALFOUR.
                                       ROBERT BRIDGES.
                                       HENRY NEWBOLT.'

A first meeting of the consulting committee mentioned in the above
reply was held in Corpus Christi College, Oxford, on Nov. 1st ult.

Present: Henry Bradley, Robert Bridges, Sir Henry Newbolt, and J.
Dover Wilson.

Discussion was confined to practical questions of organization, and
Sir Henry Newbolt undertook to draft a letter in which the sense of

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