Media communicators often use colorful figures of speech to make their words livelier or more human and conversational. That device can work — provided the figure of speech isn’t trite and provided the communicator actually knows the expression. Misunderstanding figures of speech leads to “mixaphors” or otherwise mangled expression.
For example, an editor on a panel said that unless all aspects of a procedure were carefully controlled, things could go “hog-wired” — an imaginative but meaningless blend of “haywire,” “hog wild” and, possibly, “hog-tied.”
A TV anchor said he was so sick with the flu that he felt he had “one foot in the bucket” — apparently blending “one foot in the grave” with “kick the bucket.”
A radio commentator said that one problem in the Middle East was that there was no roadmap at the end of the tunnel. That mixaphor made some sense and could have passed for word play — after all, we’d like not only light at the end of the tunnel but also to know where we’re going.
That commentator lost all credibility, however, when he went on to mention the “grindstone” around negotiators’ necks. If we’d listened longer, he might have had someone’s nose to the millstone, or even to the albatross.
For the record: We wear a millstone or albatross around our necks and put our noses to the grindstone. Millstones, symbolizing a heavy burden, are large stones that pulverize (as in processing grain). A grindstone is a revolving stone that hones or polishes, so we put our noses to the grindstone, figuratively speaking, when we work hard. And the albatross around our necks symbolizes a burden of distress that hinders action.
While mixaphors lose their original sense through combination, some expressions are abbreviated over time — although the shorthand version may not make sense.
For example, the expression that began as “happy as a clam at high tide” is now simply — and less meaningfully – “happy as a clam.”
How happy are clams, exactly?
Lengthening expressions also can destroy their original sense. “Walking on eggs,” which meant stepping carefully to avoid breaking those fragile shells, has become “walking on eggshells.” But if the eggs are already broken, just stomp away – the damage is done.
Speaking of eggs, a radio reporter changed the expression “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs” to “You can’t make a salad without breaking eggs.” That’s a serious mix-up — unless he meant you couldn’t make a genuine, old-fashioned, nearly extinct Caesar salad without breaking eggs. No one would argue with that.
Expressions also can change over time through misuse. As William Safire observed regarding usage: When enough of us are wrong, we’re right.
“Running amok,” for example, is sometimes rendered “amuck.” The term, meaning out of control, derives from the Malayan word amoq, which described people in a frenzy. Amok is so frequently misspelled, though, that some dictionaries list “amuck” as an alternative (if not preferred) form.
An editor at a writers’ conference made the audience jittery when he said his computer system was “jury-rigged.” Those writers knew he meant “jerry-rigged” or “jerry-built.” That expression is especially interesting, however, because “jury-rigged,” which we now see as incorrect, was in fact the original term.
“Jerry-built” refers to anything hastily and haphazardly constructed, and while there’s some controversy concerning its origin, its most plausible derivation is nautical. Old-time sailors once replaced broken masts with flimsy temporary poles that often fell on crew members and came to be called “injury masts.” In time, “injury” was shortened to “jury,” and “jury mast” was followed by the terms “jury-built” or “jury-rigged.” Jury was promptly slurred to “jerry” — a serendipitous development because the later term “rigging a jury” has an entirely different meaning and history.
An e-mail from a journalist includes the solecism: “hanging by tenderhooks.” That’s a baffling construction — what would a “tender hook” be like? Granted, tenterhook isn’t entirely suggestive, either. But a tenterhook is a sharp, hooked nail used to fasten cloth to a … yes, to a tenter — which in turn is used to dry and stretch cloth.
So if you’re on tenterhooks, metaphorically, you’re stretched, strained, suspended.
I wonder: When those sharp, hooked nails become dull, do we put our tenterhooks to the grindstone?
Paula LaRocque, former writing coach at The Dallas Morning News, is author of The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well and of Championship Writing, available at www.marionstreetpress.com, Amazon.com, and Barnes & Noble. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.