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Metaphors We Die By (Metaphorically)

Writers have no creative license to do violence to language, but in the age of depravity the scope of licentiousness extends to violations of linguistic usage, the media being a particularly fecund realm of examples. When it comes to the figurative use of language, the line between what used to be called “fine writing” and journalism has gradually been erased, due inter alia to the baneful influence of modern poetry, where catachresis abounds.

The form that catachresis takes when it comes to tropes is typically a matter of semantic overextension, whereby a dead metaphor that has been lexicalized is distended to include a nonsensical denotative referent.

Here is a fresh case:

“But others have not, and her story is entering the pantheon of secular anger building as a battle rages in Israel for control of the public space between the strictly religious and everyone else.” (Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kirshner, “Israelis Facing a Seismic Rift Over Role of Women,” The New York Times, National Edition, January 15, 2012, p. 1; emphasis added)

What has happened here is evident when compared with the etymology of the word pantheon and the senses adduced for it in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (Merriam-Webster, 2002):

Etymology: Middle English Panteon, temple at Rome built by the Roman statesman Agrippa died 12 B.C. and rebuilt by the Roman emperor Hadrian died A.D.138, from Latin Pantheon, from Greek pantheion temple dedicated to all gods, from pan- + theion, neuter of theios of the gods, from theos god

1 : a temple dedicated to all the gods
2 : a treatise on the pagan gods
3 : a building serving as the burial place of or containing memorials to the famous dead of a nation
4 a : the gods of a people; especially: the gods officially recognized as major or state deities b : the persons most highly esteemed by an individual or group

That two journalists and their editors, for whom writing is presumably their stock in trade, could conceive of pantheon as the metaphorical locus of anger is a failure of thought tout court––and a particularly telling one for the current state of American English in its pragmatistic dimension.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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