I admit it – I’m an annoying pedant. But only because I am annoyed, in my turn, by sloppiness – by the use of the wrong word or metaphor.
We all think it’s funny when it’s blatant. Shakespeare knew that, and so did Sheridan. Hell, Sheridan even invented a character (Mrs. Malaprop) whose main task in his play The Rivals is to mangle the language.
Sometimes this mangling of language is less obvious. Like two of football commentators’ favourite clichés: the slide-rule pass and the telegraphed pass.
On any given Saturday, you’ll hear English football commentators drool over this or that player’s “slide-rule pass”, but their admiration is directed, not at the player’s ability to deliver the square root of a pass, or its exponential. No, what they are drooling over is its accuracy; its precision. The pass may have been threaded through a defensive gap where no gap seemed to be, and delivered at the perfect pace and weight for an on-rushing striker. It had been delivered to the very blade of grass the player had intended.
Unfortunately, if it was accuracy he was after, the player in question wouldn’t have been using a slide rule, because they weren’t used (back in the day when they were used at all) to measure anything. They were used to calculate things: things like square roots and exponentials; things like the multiplication of large numbers. They were, in fact, crude mechanical calculators. And because they were crude they weren’t particularly accurate, which is why they were replaced, in the mid 70s, by scientific calculators, which are far more precise.
So not only is the slide rule a terrible metaphor for precision it’s also hopelessly out of date. You’d have to be in your mid fifties to have used one in a classroom. The majority of young men watching footie on the telly have probably never even seen a slide rule, let alone used one. Which is probably why they don’t collapse in hysterics at this cliché gone astray – they take it for granted the commentator knows what he’s talking about. Big mistake.
The telegraphed pass is another matter entirely. When he talks about a player “telegraphing” a pass, the football commentator means to say that he’s made it too obvious – so obvious in fact, that it’s easy to pick the pass off, intercept it before it reaches its target. It’s a metaphor which relies on the telegraph being a slow, laborious and unsurprising form of communication.
The trouble is, it wasn’t. On the contrary, in its heyday it was the fastest form of communication available, and was often used specifically because it gave the user the advantage of surprise. The murderer Hawley Harvey Crippen (a.k.a. Dr. Crippen) was captured because of a wireless telegram (the telegraph was the medium, the telegram was the message).
What’s more, the telegraph generally used a primitive form of encryption – unless you could decipher Morse code, it wasn’t obvious at all what you were hearing – it was just a series of dots and dashes.
Like the slide-rule, the telegraph has passed into history, rendered obsolete by newer technologies like email. The last telegram was sent in 1999. A generation is now growing up who have about as much clue about the telegraph as they do about cuneiform writing and hieroglyphs. And yet, when they are not working out the logarithmic sums of their passes, players continue to encode them into a series of dots and dashes, confusing their team-mates and the general population alike.
Why do I care? Why does it cause me to tear clumps of hair from my scalp when I hear these inappropriate metaphors trotted out, week after week, by one commentator after another?
I suppose it’s because they don’t. Care that is. Communication is supposed to be their job, and for communication to be effective and efficient it needs to be clear and precise. Metaphors can be helpful. They are economical – they let us say a lot with very few words. The genius who first told someone that he or she was flogging a dead horse conjured up a picture which is at once graphic, funny and true.
These metaphors are funny alright, but only because they are so inappropriate. It’s almost as if they were chosen to be the polar opposites of the ideas they were intended to communicate (‘as slippery as sandpaper’, ‘faster than continental drift’, ‘a smart as a sheep’). They don’t work. Worse than that, they are out of date. Even if they were completely right, it’s likely that the majority of viewers wouldn’t know why, because they barely know what a slide rule and a telegraph are.
So please Mr. Motson, Mr. Champion, Mr. Parry, et. al. take your slide rules and your telegraphs, throw them into the heaviest, sturdiest trunk you can find, lock it, throw away the key and consign it to the bottom of the ocean where its contents will trouble us no more.