Chapter XVI. Figurative Phraseology
§ 76. George Eliot once remarked that we cannot say what anything is except as we call it something that it isn't. The situation suggested is somewhat comic, but George Eliot's remark is so true that a whole theory of experience might be built on it.
A student is not a shark, but he never objects to being called • a shark. A warrior is not a lion, but he is delighted to be so termed. No girl is a peach, and some girls may object to being identified with a fruit, yet the term means something in the slang of boys.
Language is figurative through and through. Take the sentence of a half dozen words that I have just written. Language means tongue; that is a figure; we even say "our mother tongue" - which is a curiously comic phrase. The word is probably comes from a word meaning to breathe. The word figurative means like a picture, or figure. Through and through is literally applicable only to objects, and language is not literally an object. The hardest of all linguistic tasks is to know just exactly the literal, plain meaning of a word. It is almost impossible to nail it down.
§ 77. In Chapter XI (The History Of Business Words) we noted certain business words which have developed by figurative processes from very simple beginnings. Many other words might be named which carry still more romance within them. Jovial and mercurial and consider and contemplate carry the history of astrology. Panic means a nameless fear caused by the god Pan, the spirit of the wilderness; and that throws light on the banker-poet Stedman's poem called "Pan in Wall street." Copper is the island Cyprus, masking. Lumber is probably Lombard, from a certain Lombard pawn-broker who kept a room full of lumber, or miscellaneous stuff; sawed wood was so called because it was unwieldy stuff to have around. Capricious means goat-like, skipping hither and thither. Pupil means a baby. Silly is the German selig, which means both innocent and blessed; note the business irony if you say "Silly are the merciful." Trifle and truffle are probably the same word, though if you try to buy truffles you will find the price no trifle.
§ 78. There is simply no end to the figures which are hidden in the most literal words. Try as you will to be plain and prosaic, every breath of your talk is filled with poetry.
Not only that, but the hardest-headed business men invent new figures of speech - that is, new figurative phrases - every day of their lives. The two figures which they most often use are called metaphor and simile. A metaphor identifies two objects; a simile explicitly states a poetic resemblance. To call a man a giant is metaphor; to state explicitly that he is like a giant is simile. Slang is one solid mass of vulgar metaphors and similes. The speech of an educated salesman is full of vigorous (not vulgar) metaphors and similes. Some of them are manufactured on the spot. Others are caught up from books and magazines and conversation. But they are deliberately employed, and the effective use of them is a practical art.
Practical figures of speech are not far-fetched. They spring from the ordinary facts and needs of common life. Take any simple business situation you please, and you will find it full of potential metaphors. Say that a salesman calls on a farmer to sell him a gasoline engine. The two men shake hands. Presently the salesman is telling the farmer that the engine in question will "shake hands with a pump at the lively rate of thirty-five shakes a minute."
Practical figures of speech are rarely high-flown; they are not cheaply poetic; they are woven or stamped into the very text and tissue of business English like the colored threads in a banknote. Before me lie at this minute half a dozen good follow-up letters. I cull from them a dozen organic and effective metaphors: a ghost of a show.
a square deal.
pockets the profit.
an open and shut proposition.
protected from any gust of misfortune.
grip on the situation.
a flash in the pan.
they wink at the means used.
§ 79. Now some men are much more figurative by nature
than others. A metaphor springs to the lips of some every time those lips open. Consequently persons of quick fancy are constantly changing figures. It can't be helped. It is natural. Shakspere did it so rapidly and so constantly that he is the wonder of literature. But even Shakspere sometimes did it too quickly, did it in the middle of a sentence. It was this supreme master of metaphor who spoke of "taking arms against a sea of trouble." That metaphor is mixed, and all the schoolmasters since Shakspere have noted it with glee, though not one of them could have written the great soliloquy in which it occurs.
Before me lies a recent book on salesmanship. It is breezy
and buoyant, and vigorous enough to stir the most phlegmatic drummer to activity. It is simply crammed with effective metaphors and similes. Let me quote half a dozen:
1. We get into a circular routine and go round and round.
2. The journey over the pathway of life is not unlike a ride on a lumber-wagon over a road strewn with boulders.
3. You see a blacksmith coming toward you in the form of Pure Grit
4. The spark ignited the powder, and the way I lighted into that poor . little side-street merchant was worthy of better results than the amount of his bill afterwards showed.
5. There may be undiscovered diamonds in your own back yard.
6. Make up your mind that the little demon whispering discouragement in your ear shall always get from you the answer, You lie.
But this same book is not always happy in its figures. Sometimes they change so rapidly that the mixture is comic. Here are half a dozen which lose their effect because they set the reader to laughing.
1. To find the easy ascent to the golden mountain of salesmanship, the salesman must first dig, dig, dig deep in the fields of knowledge of his profession.
2. To locate the nigger in the woodstack in one's methods means much. The only hope lies in putting the plumb-line of the experience of others beside one's own.
3. True knowledge properly applied is the power behind the throne winning the big business of to-day.
4. The great problem ... is how to prevent being crushed out and shoved to one side in the mad commercial whirl.
5. I had been wrestling with dry-goods boxes and feather dusters for about a year and a half when all of a sudden the seed burst forth, unfolding the petals of a new life.
6. "Faith is the lever that moves mountains."
"Faith is not faith till it gets into your fingers and your feet"
Faith begets faith.
These errors are easy to detect. Sometimes you feel that something is wrong, but you don't quite know why. Take this:
Then his eye fell on Scherer the failure, over in the corner. The iron in his employer's soul was touched. "That is," he said, "with one exception. Mr. Scherer, who is our weakest salesman, has failed, as customary, to do justice to the firm and to the territory which he travels."
The words in italics are due to a half-remembered phrase, "The iron had entered into his soul," meaning that he had been pierced by the iron of life's tragedy. This is then mixed with the thought of iron in the blood, which gives sternness of character. It is then further mixed with "His soul Was touched," that is, his softer feelings were touched. The blend of the three figures is very, very poor.
Here is a lightning change series. It is from an article on follow-up letters.
In order to secure superior results, a scheme is essential - that is a bull's eye at which to aim - promiscuous shots may hit the mark only sometimes, a well-directed fire brings results. After much study I have, I believe, discovered the secret of the whole problem in making the tire plan my bait - its very value, desirability, necessity, interest, and money-saving points at once becomes the keystone of the situation.
§ 80. The most effective use of figures in business English is not the decorative use. It is the use of common words with a new turn of meaning. You can see what I mean if you turn to Bartlett's Shakspere Concordance, and look up the commonest words you can think of. You will find that the great dramatist used common words not merely in their literal sense, but in ways that he and nobody else had thought of. Light and heavy, thick and thin, high and low - for such words Shakspere has dozens of effective metaphorical uses. He speaks of heavy news, heavy sin, heavy day, heavy message, etc.; of light behavior, light loss, light wings, light foam; of thick sight, thick perils, thick slumber; of thin drink, thin air, thin pittance.