Listening to the news yesterday morning I heard a Tasmanian member of parliament talking about the difficulty she was having in deciding how to vote on the gay marriage bill before Tasmania’s Legislative Council. ‘This issue challenges the fibre of my whole being,’ she said (or I think she said). I knew instantly what she meant, and what she was trying to say. But what she said was not quite what she meant. Fibres can be torn, perhaps, but not challenged. Her sense of what was right, perhaps, was being challenged, and you could argue that, metaphorically, our ‘being’ could be compared to a woven cloth of many fibres. But it wasn’t what she really wanted to say.
I’m not having a go at her. I understood her at once, and her mixed metaphor reminded me of many meetings of the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee and, before I joined that august body, of the Australian Research Council, and some other organisations connected with it. In all of them men and women of high attainment had something they wanted to say, searched for it, and failed to find it. Yet I knew, as I scribbled down their offerings, what it was that they meant.
Many of them were academics, and as you know, an academic is someone who approaches every question with a completely open mouth. One of them, a distinguished scientist, had a fondness for distinguishing ourselves, sitting in solemn conclave, from the real workers, meaning those who would like to receive the money which we would finally disburse. Here the favourite mixed metaphors were soldiers in the trenches, miners at the coal-face, and the grass-roots. We received some wonderful constructions like these:
‘down in the trenches, the people who do the work’
‘the money’s not there down at the coal-face’
‘those of us down in the trenches trying to deliver the goods’
‘one of the people in the trenches who had to fill in these forms’
This colleague had almost a genius for developing a metaphor that began to lead its own life, as in this example:
‘and then, as X said, we get into bed with industry to develop our idea, but before long you lose control … yet nobody knows how to do it’.
Or this one:
‘they need to have enough money to isolate the new developments as they occur, and then to put their foot on them’.
Or this one:
‘I will try to retrieve a paper which has now been lost in the seeds of time’.
Someone who was later to be the Secretary of a Commonwealth Department gave us this example:
‘by this time the canvas is already etched out’
but he was matched by an academic whose opinion was that
‘the main problem is mopping up the pipeline effects’.
Another complained that
‘institutions were trying to get the first bite at the best students’
and in the same discussion went on to say:
‘I’ve revealed myself. I suppose I should allow others to reveal themselves.’
Here are some random examples:
‘this is falling on deaf ears, and that’s the Achilles heel!’
‘I want to conclude in a number of directions’
‘I’m talking about financial amounts of money’
‘They want those Asian researchers nailed to the floor’
(a vice-chancellor) ‘We’ll be the first guinea pig off the rank’
(another) ‘That would be like breaking a cardinal sin’
(a third) ‘These are the criteria we would expect any university to be able to undertake’.
A final note from that time was about the use of emphasis. The scientist who was fixated on trenches, coal-faces and grass-roots once told us that ‘the question of critical mass was absolutely critical’. And all of us liked to qualify our nouns with the right adjectives, so matters were usually of ‘grave concern’, to which we paid ‘serious attention’, often in a state of ‘deep anxiety’. If the matter was not contentious, we were usually ‘comfortable with’ it.
Ah, they were the days. One of the luxuries of being a chairman is that you have to listen to everyone, and it is OK for you to scribble things down. And what were my own sins of expression? I really don’t know, and I certainly didn’t scribble them down!