Peter Smith

Lipsticking the gilded language pig

Language changes through use and misuse. I’m no linguistic expert so I offer no opinion on whether the English language has got better or worse over the last 100  years in its precision and richness. But it surely can’t be a good thing when commentators on the telly (a useful addition to the language, I think) say “come” when they mean “came”. My mum, bless her heart, always used to be “coming” when she should have been “caming”. But then she had no pretensions to be a public broadcaster. Having also visited Lithgow on numbers of occasions in recent years, I can attest that “came” was seldom used, at least in the company I kept.

The adverb too has largely disappeared from sports broadcasts. Players these days run “quick”. Again, personally, I don’t think this represents an improvement to (or is it “in”?) the language.

The frequent use of “oxymoron” annoys me. It’s constantly misused when the speaker simply means “a contradiction in terms” but wants to appear sophisticated. How is it a good thing to rob the language of its richness in this way? “Oxymoron” will go the way of “replica” (a copy by the original artist) and fall in line as a synonym for numbers of other common or garden words and phrases.

I don’t like “the temperature is on the fall or on the rise”. I cringe when this is said by the ABC’s weather man. Why not “falling” or “rising”? What advantage has been gained by using three words instead of one? What lies in store? “It is on the rain.” “ It is on the snow.”

Maybe this is all down to the hatchet job biblical scholars have wreaked on the King James Bible over the years to “modernise” the language. And what was wrong in the Book of Common Prayer with the poetic word “trespass” for example? Why are the prosaic words “sin” or “debts” (even if they do have some biblical lineage in Luke and Matthew) an improvement? I for one always stick to the Lord’s Prayer I learnt at school. I recommend this course of rebellious action to all those who feel slightly curmudgeonly on a Sunday morning.

This is all a long way to bring me to metaphors, George Orwell, Simon Crean, and to lipstick on a pig.

Orwell set down some simple rules for expression in his essay Politics and the English Language. It is worth looking them all up, but I will focus on just the first: “Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” He also made the point that those using metaphors often mix and misuse them, twisting their meaning. He cites “toe the line” being written as “tow the line”, and the anvil suffering worse than the hammer instead of the other way around. According to Orwell, “a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would be aware of this, and would avoid perverting the original phrase”.

Bad Nielson poll numbers for the Labor Party published on February 18 drew this comment from Mr Crean: “It’s a wake-up call, isn’t it? You can’t gild the lily.” When I heard this I thought – well for all of these years I was under a misapprehension that lilies are attractive flowers rather than noxious weeds. But, being no horticulturalist, I decided to investigate the matter further. It turns out that lilies are worthy flowers. So what the heck was Mr Crean on about? Well of course he picked entirely the wrong metaphor. He hadn’t read his Shakespeare (King John, IV.ii.11) or his Fowler’s and had no idea what he was talking about. He could have aptly said “we can’t sugar-coat this” or, rather more earthily, “we can’t put lipstick on a pig.”

This latter expression has some political pedigree, having been used (and correctly) by the then-Senator Obama in the lead up to the 2008 presidential election. John McCain called foul suggesting he was making some allusion to Sarah Palin, who you might recall had earlier pinpointed lipstick as the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull. But this I think was unfair and is, in any event, by the way.

I would have put the comment by Mr Crean down to a slip before that excellent column Cut & Paste in The Australian revealed an endemic pattern of gilding the lily on March 25.

In short order this year, Anthony Albanese, Doug Cameron, Joe Hockey, Craig Emerson and Wayne Swan have all used the expression; all quite inappropriately in commenting on bad news. What does this mean? Even The Australian only referred to its “well worn” use, not to its inappropriate use. Apparently, now, not only are well-worn clichés and metaphors used repeatedly by politicians but no heed is paid to their applicability. The language has become chaotic in the mouths of our parliamentary representatives.

The English language is a precious thing. Weathermen, sports commentators, politicians will mangle it; as, understandably, will some common folk. However, when The Australian becomes a passive observer to language vandalism we have reached a pretty pass where the only direction appears to be downwards to grunting.

When you think about it, grunting as we swing through pristine old-growth forests is exactly what the Greens have in mind for our future. Perhaps the Greens and “hate media” have more in common than either thought possible.

Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics

Leave a Reply