Wednesday, May 14, 2008

An Analogy That's Like Oleo

When SNL character Linda Richman liked something, she said it was “like butter.” It was an analogy anyone could grasp. It could mean something was smooth, rich, luxurious, satisfying, or indulgent. Butter’s butteriness is universally understood.

I was thinking about this the other day when I heard on the radio that something ran “like clockwork.” This expression is so clichéd that its fatigue is actually contagious. It puts our brains to sleep. How else can you explain the fact that people continue to use the expression long after a day when people might have had much firsthand experience with the stuff actually called “clockwork”?

According to Webster’s New World College Dictionary, clockwork is defined as:

1. the mechanism of a clock; 2. any similar mechanism, consisting of springs and
geared wheels, as in some mechanical toys

Really, how close a relationship do we have with this word? How often do we get a chance to use it outside the above-referenced cliché? “I overslept because the Sanyo on my nightstand isn’t working. So I’m going to open it up and look at the clockwork.” Add to that the proliferation of digital clocks and suddenly the word “clockwork” is about as meaningful to most Americans as references to the choke levers on cars.

An analogy is supposed to shed light on one thing by comparing it to a second, familiar thing. Yet when I say that planes run like clockwork, I’m actually trying to shed light on something you know well by comparing it something you don’t really know at all.

That’s just weird.

Weirder yet, that’s the kind of stuff that occupies my mind for more hours than I care to admit.


LL said...

Okay! Good to know other people fixate on grammatical things as well. While proctoring the Advanced Placement exams and waiting for the key moment to read my script, I had a near-existential crisis regarding whether I should say "There are 10 minutes remaining" (as was dictated) or whether "Ten minutes remain" would be better than "You have ten minutes remaining." Not to mention whether, in the first sentence, "remaining" was functioning as a multi-word verb or an adjective! Any ideas on the best phrasing? Thanks!

June Casagrande said...

Good questions!

"There," also called "the existential there," is known as an expletive. This means not a dirty word but an extra word.

"Cats live at my house" can be restructured as "There are cats that live at my house."

"There" becomes (technically) the grammatical subject of the sentence. It sort of demotes the real subject, cats, and takes its place. Cats, however, remains what's called the notional subject.

And herein lies your answer. "There are 10 minutes remaining" is just a tweaked way of saying "Ten minutes are remaining" -- your existential "there" is muscling in on your real subject's turf. Thus, the word "remaining" is part of the verb and not, in this case, an adjective.

Was more than you bargained for? I hope not. This notional subject stuff is actually WHY we say "there is a reason" but "there are some reasons."

"There" is singular either way. But in this construction, the verb agrees with the notional subject.

So it's the same concept.

(Source: "Oxford English Grammar," which I got at my local bookstore.)

Joel said...

I have to admit that I love these little archaic or otherwise unfamiliar vestiges encapsulated in our figures of speech. They're like hidden treasures or tiny time bombs of meaning just waiting to burst when you stumble across the right trip wire (yeah, big fan of the strained metaphor, too ;-) ). I'm even inclined to argue about the purpose and practice of metaphor. But I do realize that my perspective is somewhat perverse.

Okay, in this case, I'm old enough to remember when most timepieces, were, in fact, filled with gears and springs and fun little things. But another argument in favor is the interesting synergy that's created when one identifies the silicon, digital innards and the moving of electrons with the more mechanical gear work. And, indeed, in my brain, I can't help thinking of "A Clockwork Orange" and all that that evokes--about the machinery of the soul and of society--not that I think we should get stuck on such constructs any more than we should limit ourselves to perceiving the mind as CPU, but they are yet another avenue to understanding and perspective.

David said...

Off topic, a question for you:

If I end an interrogative sentence with an abbreviation that normally calls for a period, should I leave out the period?

"Should I accept the phone interview, or just write a thoughtful letter stating why I can't do it with a few questions like housing, salary, etc?"

June Casagrande said...

Keep the period.

A question mark can often replace other "terminal" (sentence-ending) punctuation. But the period at the end of etc. isn't there to wrap up a sentence. It's there to denote an abbreviation.

Hope that helps.


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