Killing Off a Metaphor With a Fresh Coat of Paint

Urban myth alert: this story may be exaggerated.

The Forth Bridge,  just outside Edinburgh, was opened in 1890. Opened but not really completed. In fact, it seemed as though it would never be completed. The paint would flake off, and just as soon as one part of the bridge was repainted, another would need a touch-up.

And so a metaphor was born: like painting the Forth Bridge, or that’s a Forth Bridge paint job.  Brits used it to describe arduous, unending tasks. Memorizing multiplication tables. Preparing your tax return. Attending a Grateful Dead concert.

But now, the endless paint job has ended. The paint is hardier these days—so much so that the bridge won’t need another coat for about 25 years. For the first time in the bridge’s history, “there will be no painters required on the bridge,” beams Colin Hardie, the construction superintendent of the paint contractor Balfour Beatty. “Job done.”

Hardie gets into murkier water with this declaration: “The old cliché is over.”

Is it? Will people stop using a metaphor just because it no longer holds up?

We don’t necessarily stop using phrases just because they’re out of date. We still put the cart before the horse even though we ride on neither. We still put in our two cents even though we rarely use pay phones anymore (and when we do it costs considerably more than two cents).

Plus, this is a strictly British expression. And Brits don’t embrace Americanisms, or at least they like to think they don’t. Otherwise, they’d happily trade the idea of a painting a bridge for playing an arcade game. The phrase like playing Whac-A-Mole would be a fine substitute for like painting the Forth Bridge. But it’s not going to happen. For one thing, Whac-A-Mole needs to be explained to most Brits, myself included.

So what might replace painting the Forth Bridge? Etymologist Mark Forsyth suggests bailing out the Euro. And there’s waiting for the Arab summer (we are currently in the fifth quarter of the Arab spring).

Also in the podcast this week:

South Africa’s newest pop sensation Zahara talks about singing in both English and her native Xhosa. Her debut album, Loliwe, is itself a metaphor for absence, well known to Xhosa speakers.

And a study by Yale economist Keith Chen claims that the language you speak may determine how much money you save. According to Chen, you’re in luck if your native tongue doesn’t have a future tense. Linguist John McWhorter told reporter Audrey Quinn that he begs to differ with this theory. And he has a theory of his own as to why so many people are attracted to the idea that thought and behaviour spring from language.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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