Archive for the ‘confusing idiom’ category

Why is government never “just right”?

November 30, 2008

I’m having trouble with “small government”. Not the concept itself, but the phrase. I know it’s meant to mean a hands-off form of government, but to me a small government is one that’s little enough to fit into the small details of people’s lives and affect them at a minor level.

A big government should be one that’s too large to concern itself with individuals’ personal business, focusing instead on sweepingly large concepts like life, liberty and justice.

So why are the phrases the other way round? Is it because government looks smaller when it’s further away? But if so, why not call it distant government or something like that?

A further difficulty with the small government v. big government concept is that some libertarians who claim to oppose “small government” are absolutely fine with taking reproductive rights away from individuals and putting them in the chilly hands of the state. Perhaps they’d like government to shrink so small that it can fit inside the womb.

Scheduling idiom

October 28, 2008

When we talk about pushing a project deadline back, we’re actually talking about setting that project’s new deadline further forward in time. And when we talk about moving an appointment forward, we mean that we’re rearranging that appointment to happen sooner, so the new date will actually be further back in time than the original date.

I’m astonished that this doesn’t cause more confusion. I think it’s because although the idiom is confusing at face value, it’s the expression of a metaphor that most people are comfortable with.

When we talk about time in the context of scheduling, we’re really talking about our own relationship to the scheduled dates, and we’re imagining it in a spatial way. So, when you say that you’re moving the deadline back, you mean that you’re pushing it further away from you. And when you say you’re moving an appointment forward, you mean you’re bringing it nearer to you.

The “you” in both cases is the you of the present. You may not accept that the you of the present is the true you, or even that there can ever be a single authentic self, but you have to accept that the “you” of the present has been saddled with the task of organising your diary.

Forwards, not backwards

October 27, 2008

The equinoctes are a time for celebrating confusing idiom and useless mnemonics. Someone recently told me with pride that she knows a sure-fire way of remembering how the clocks go: “It’s spring back – no, spring forward – yes, spring forward – and then fall back because obviously Americans call it the fall because, well, I don’t know, because leaves are falling from the trees or something.”

The “spring forward, fall back” mnemonic isn’t completely useless, though. Although “spring back, fall forward” is also grammatical English, at least “spring forward, fall back” is more idiomatic, which means that the version more likely to trip off your tongue is actually the correct version. That’s rare and laudable in the world of mnemonics.  (Although, if you’ve been brought up on a diet of useless mnemonics, you may confidently be expecting the less idiomatic version to be the correct one.)

My real problem with “spring forward, fall back” is its limitations. It’s great for telling you what to do with your clocks, useless at telling you how to conceptualise time at this time of year. What I want is a mnemonic that tells me whether my imaginary hour is being lost or gained, whether mornings and evenings will seem lighter or darker, why on earth we go through this palaver twice a year, what time it “really” is. And no mnemonic could spring back under the weight of all that expectation.