The Readers Digest, that stalwart of dentists’ waiting rooms, used to run a column called “Towards more picturesque speech”. Still does, for all I know. (About forty years ago, I used to work for Reader’s Digest in Hong Kong).
It seems these days that the press (especially the left-wing press) is engaged in a campaign in the opposite direction — against picturesque speech. They will look for any reference that they can interpret as a potential slight to some minority group, and use it to ramp up resentment and grievance. The objective seems to be a politically-correct, sanitised New-Speak, antiseptically dull, in an environment where politicians are in constant fear of giving offence.
A couple of years back we had a huge media spat about the word “dwarf”, even though it’s a perfectly good and well-understood English word, sanctified by generations of children’s books and Disney movies. And of course the representatives of minorities and disability groups would be failing in their duty if they didn’t feed the flames with expressions of outrage.
More recently, we’ve had David Cameron’s off-the cuff reference comparing Ed Balls’ speaking style with that of Tourettes sufferers, and he’s been obliged to apologise. Yet the comparison he made was clear and graphic, it made its point, it was immediately understood, and I should think that a great many people found it amusing — at the expense of Ed Balls, not at the expense of Tourettes sufferers. Indeed, I should hope that Tourettes sufferers themselves may have been amused and heartened at the aperçu that a senior politician arguably had some speech mannerisms comparable to their own — but without the medical justification.
Many people have one health problem or another. In my own case, I’ve had a heart condition for twenty years (fortunately well-controlled — so far). But I should not be in the least offended by the phrase “heart-broken”, nor should I complain if I read in a detective novel that “The victim fell to the ground clutching his chest, as if struck by a sudden heart attack”.
Where does this thing stop? Shall we censure John Philip Sousa for saying that a march was “music to make a one-legged man step out”?
Am I allowed to say that Cameron turned a deaf ear to HS2 objectors? Or to refer to a cul-de-sac as a blind alley? If a round-the-world tri-maran is dismasted in the Southern Ocean, may we speak of it as crippled? If my mobile phone gives up on me, can I say that the battery is dead? Or is this an insult to the bereaved, and …. errr… the dead?
I think it’s time to lighten up, drop the chip from the shoulder, and welcome simile and metaphor that make our public discourse more graphic, more comprehensible, and more interesting.