Orwell on writing bad metaphors

Modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit.

That, from George Orwell. Much as I would like to, I can’t take credit for picking out that passage today; thanks must go to Maria Popova and brain pickings.

Have a look at her interesting analysis, George Orwell on Writing, based on his 1964 essay, Politics and the English Language.

Orwell’s thoughts on metaphors is worth re-quoting as well:

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 cudgels 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, 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.

While on this, can’t resist posting this resource, also from brain pickings: Famous Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

Let me stop here, lest I end up using a dead–or worse still, dying–metaphor.


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