Orwell, metaphors and teaching

I read George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” the other day. There’s a lot in it to like, but one bit in particular stood out for me. Orwell encourages people to think up their own metaphors rather than falling back on clichés.  To create an good metaphor, you need to think carefully about the idea you are expressing. If you fall back on a cliché, you are likely parroting the ideas of another, and quite possibly are not thinking clearly about what you are saying.

Here’s George:

“Dying metaphors. A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” (e.g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a “rift,” for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase.”

I’ve never really figured out where the line is between a metaphor which clarifies things and one which confuses things. For the latter, let’s turn to Humphrey Lyttleton on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue:

“The teams are going to sing for us now in a round called One Song To The Tune Of Another. It’s a game of such pure simplicity that to offer an explanation would be an insult to the intelligent mind. So, teams, what happens is, you’ll each be allocated a song from which you’ll take the words and discard the tune. It might help to think of it as separating an egg. The shell is the song containing the ‘words’ or yolk, and the ‘tune’ or white. The yolk can be combined with milk, sugar and flour to make custard, a complete change of combination, but still food, while the white is thrown away, although personally I think that’s a waste, and I like to use it to make a light, fluffy soufflé. Try it with grated fresh Parmesan or if you can’t get fresh Parmesan, a hard Cheddar will do. And there you have it – two meals but very different, even though they come from the same shell.”

In class, I’m more interested in metaphors which clarify things. The other day we were talking about developing a critical attitude. I drew the following on the board to illustrate learning which would not demonstrate a critical attitude:


And then one which would:


The three colours of truth-claims enter the student’s mind from different books. To represent a critical attitude I drew a protective dotted circle around the student’s head. Someone referred to it as an “ozone layer”, and I latched on to that. With a metaphor in place, we had a visual mnemonic which has at least a couple of uses:

1. It allows me to quickly test the memory of the phrase “critical attitude” – I ask, “What did we call that ozone layer around our heads”?

2. We can push the metaphor until it breaks. “Why is X like a Y?” is a classic question to make someone think about the nature of X and Y. “Why is X not like a Y?” works the same way. So we can ask:

(a) Why is a critical attitude like the ozone layer? (It surrounds the mind as a protective shield).

(b) Why is it not like the ozone layer? (It protects us from false claims, whereas the ozone layer protects us from ultraviolet light).

Following on from Orwell, the metaphor has more value because it was created in class and was consequently more alive. Though I would stop short of claiming that it was original, it was at least newly invented.

Image credit

George Orwell

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