In his landmark essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell argued that people who misuse metaphors rarely have a mental image of the thing they are attempting to describe, because if they did have such an image, they wouldn’t misuse the metaphor in the first place. Although the essay is concerned primarily with the use of worn-out metaphors and turns of phrase, he did point out that the purpose of using a metaphor in the first place is to provide an image that enables the reader or listener to grasp the point being made more easily.
One of the examples he used was the phrase ‘to toe the line’, meaning to conform, to avoid stepping beyond accepted norms and conventions. He pointed out that it was often written ‘to tow the line’, which is possible, given that ‘line’ is a synonym for ‘rope’, which can be towed, but the perverted version sows confusion rather than providing clarity.
The latest specimen of careless usage from BBC journalists is not quite so blatant, but it is clear that those who use it are not thinking about what they are saying. Sports fans will be aware that the Australian Open tennis championship started this week. It is being billed as the season’s ‘first grand slam’. In contract bridge, a grand slam is a commitment in advance to take all thirteen tricks, so I think that it is reasonable to assume that a grand slam in tennis would be winning this championship, plus the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, preferably in the same year, these being the four major championships in tennis. This feat may be impossible in the modern era, given the small differences in skill between the top players; nevertheless, it is ludicrous to describe individual championships as ‘grand slams’. Each of the four should be described as ‘a grand slam event’, although perhaps tennis, and tennis commentators, would do better to copy golf and refer to the four national championships mentioned as ‘the four majors’ and thus avoid the hyperbole.
other posts in this series
1. BBC English.
3. More or Less.
4. Making an Impression.
5. Explaining Science.