The many-tentacled cash cow, and other mangled metaphors

by The Editor

FEATURE: Before there was Marius Fransman – the reigning king of convolution – there was Edwin Naidu, who would, week-in and week-out, generate for the Sunday Independent a series of metaphors so mangled they would produce in equal quantities much laughter and confusion. And not just mixed metaphors but a wide range of cliches, unoriginal and over-used, if that isn’t redundant.  In the 2008 article below, I look at some of them and set out just how bizarre and devoid of meaning many of them are. So, if you want to see why Vodacom is a many-tentacled cash cow, read on!

The many-tentacled cash cow, and other mangled metaphors

By: Gareth van Onselen

2 September 2012

Writing for his regular column in the Sunday Independent this past Sunday, Edwin Naidu has produced an article the sheer idiocy of which renders it almost immune to full and proper interrogation: an attack on the DA’s suggestion that Jacob Zuma debate Helen Zille. And so I will not attempt to provide any such analysis here; for, were I to do so, simply identifying and explaining all the logical errors inherent in his reasoning would require a response of some considerable length, never mind the rebuttal, an exercise for which I have neither the time nor the inclination.

There is, however, another problem with Naidu’s article, aside from its perverse logic. And that is his misuse of the English language; a problem of some gravity if one considers that his column appears prominently on the editorial page of a leading Sunday newspaper.

Nor is it a problem limited to the particular article identified above, but a common trait of almost all of his writing. Thus, what I will attempt to do here, is to identify some of the more significant problems with the way Naidu writes, with the hope that, by doing so, I will also illustrate some broader trends and bad habits that, unfortunately, often define South African journalism.

In his essay on Politics and the English Language George Orwell writes:

“Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.”

With regard especially to political writing, Orwell continues:

“As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.”

Orwell was concerned chiefly with the writings of politicians themselves, but his analysis can quite appropriately be extended to political commentators. He proceeds to identify a series of examples, by way of illustrating these bad habits, the first of which he terms the “dying metaphor”:

“A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically ‘dead’ (e.g. iron resolution ) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves… Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning, and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying.”

Now, consider the following passage, the opening to a December 2007 article by Naidu:

“Jacob Zuma has a rocky road to Polokwane before his coronation as party leader in two weeks time. But his transformation from pariah to presidential frontrunner is nothing short of amazing. Few would have put money on Zuma wiping out his stronger rivals, especially President Thabo Mbeki, in the convincing manner he has. As the nation waits to learn whether or not Zuma will be prosecuted, one thing is clear: regardless of the unsavoury allegations, there is a resounding chorus of calls for Zuma to become president when the ANC congregates for the battle of Polokwane. Zuma has been characterised as a palooka for his inability to manage his finances. His morals have also come under scrutiny. But he seems the ultimate survivor.”

It is a passage loaded with clches and “worn-out” metaphors: “a rocky road”; “his coronation”; “his transformation from pariah to presidential frontrunner”; “nothing short of amazing”; “few would have put money on”; “wiping out”; “stronger rivals”; “the nation waits to learn”; “one thing is clear”; “unsavoury allegations”; “resounding chorus of calls”; “the battle of [Polokwane]”; “come under scrutiny” and “ultimate survivor”.

Indeed, so reliant is Naidu on hackneyed truisms and platitudes that, it is fair to say, not a single sentence in that passage can claim to hold an original turn of phrase or centre around a unique construction of the English language. In turn, its meaning is empty, its impact flat and its reading dull. It represents perhaps the quintessential example of poor writing and, underlying that, poor reasoning. And, ultimately, it is the reader that pays the price – our intellectual faculties are lulled into a lazy stupor and our expectations lowered.

Significantly, it is not only the mundane and the meaningless that Naidu embraces but, even within that, he undermines the tired metaphors he does employ by misusing and, often, confusing them.

An example from the above passage would be: “…regardless of the unsavoury allegations, there is a resounding chorus of calls for Zuma to become president…” Here he seamlessly combines a metaphor about taste with one about sound, with the result that the desired image is confusing and contradictory.

He also regularly confuses metaphors in-and-of themselves, by incorrectly phrasing them or using an inappropriate word. An example would be: “…the ANC congregates for the battle of Polokwane”. Technically people might congregate for a battle; more likely, they would congregate for a ceremony or meeting. A more appropriate word for the metaphor would be ‘gather’ or ‘rally’, each far more consistent with the idea of a battle or war.

Naidu commits these sorts of basic errors repeatedly, and those two examples above are relatively subtle when compared to his more blatant blunders. A quick scan over his various writings reveals a litany of poorly conceptualised and badly misused metaphors. Here is a small selection:

• “…Vodacom would be able to spread its tentacles without the handicap of having a government parastatal using it as a cash cow while not doing much to reduce the red tape that has limited Vodacom’s potential for growth on the continent.”
• “Instead of barking up Leon’s tree, Zille should take the bull by the horns…”
• “…the supermarket group is losing market share to other retail food chains because it has not boldly gone where its rivals have already planted their seeds.”
• “…wearing two frocks – one as mayor and other as opposition leader – can sometimes blur the vision.”
• “Mbeki’s media assault saw government leaders coming out to bat for the embattled president.”
• “Zille seems to be picking up Leon’s stompies. Is this not the pot calling the kettle black?”

Those are, essentially, mixed metaphors – evidence of poor writing and confused thinking. And yet, as bizarre as the image of a many-tentacled cash cow is, Naidu is perfectly capable of being entirely inexplicable as well. For example:

“President Mbeki pays lip service to corruption.”

Presumably he means President Mbeki pays lip service to addressing corruption? As it stands, Naidu would seem to be suggesting that Mbeki should be encouraging corruption.

“The passing of the baton in politics is proving to be a painful denial of the past.”

What Naidu means to say is that, increasingly, denying our past is a mindset that one generation of politicians are passing on to the next. However, what he has actually written is that the act of passing that mindset on, in and of itself, is a “painful denial of the past” – which is, of course, completely meaningless.

“Critics chirp like hypocrites when the target is easy.”

At first reading, I was not sure whether this represented an attempt to generate a new simile – certainly, it is unique – but the suggestion that something should “chirp like a hypocrite” is beyond my – no doubt limited – imagination.

“Zimbabwe is the new miracle nation of Africa. Its rainbow is red, the colour of the blood stains on the brown skins of the “opponents of democracy”, according to Robert Mugabe.”

Here, metaphor and factual quotation merge in a bizarre amalgamation of Naidu’s own imagination and that of Robert Mugabe; and the image of a rainbow with that of a blood stained victim.

A good test of any metaphor is to imagine what it would look like as a picture. If it is a mixed metaphor, or confused in any way, the picture one conjures up will be bizarre and, most likely, humorous which, if that is not your intention, will have the effect of distracting from the central narrative, undermining the strength of the argument and, ultimately, lowering one’s opinion of that particular piece of writing.

Often, but not always, if you are not able to conjure up an image, the metaphor has failed. Consider, for example: “…it has not boldly gone where its rivals have already planted their seeds” – a sentence as inextricable as it is surreal.

Between the mixed metaphors, the hackneyed phrases, the poor and confusing imagery and the illogical sentence structure – and if one has the patience to unearth it – there lies Naidu’s argument. Unfortunately, its merits more often than not reflect those of the language in which it is couched. Certainly, with regards to the article mentioned in the introduction to this piece, it is fundamentally flawed in several respects.

And while the precise nature of those shortcomings is the subject for another article, it makes perfect sense. For an inability to write clearly and concisely, and to articulate one’s thoughts properly, obviously impacts negatively on one’s ability to construct and argue an idea or set out an analysis. As Orwell put it, in another essay of his: “…if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

On the evidence, both Naidu’s thought and language are corrupted, and almost any piece of writing he produces suffers as a consequence of this vicious circle.

This article was first published on June 30 2008.

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