Malfunctions, misdemeanours, metaphors

Posted by on April 29, 2011

Here’s an intriguing sentence from last Sunday’s Observer newspaper:

“Madonna is constantly on the naughty step for alleged ‘mutton misdemeanours’ while posing with Lourdes.”

It’s common to need a little cultural information in order to decipher things we read in the papers – but this sentence takes some beating. The article is poking fun at celebrity mothers who try to look younger and more attractive than their daughters when the two are out together. There are two difficult expressions here. First, why ‘mutton misdeameanours’? As often happens in journalism, the writer has taken an established idiom and played around with it. The expression mutton dressed as lamb is a rather unkind way of talking about an older woman who dresses in a manner that’s more appropriate for someone younger – and here this is presented as a sort of minor crime, or misdemeanour.

A quick check on Google reveals, as suspected, that ‘mutton misdeameanour’ is a one-off usage – for now. But a witty or clever new phrase can sometimes capture people’s imaginations and be re-used so often that it becomes part of the language. This is what happened with ‘wardrobe malfunction’, which was coined when singer Janet Jackson was performing in the break at the US Super Bowl in 2004: her dress slipped out of place to reveal one of her breasts to hundreds of millions of viewers – setting off a tsunami of wardrobe malfunction references. Could the same thing happen with ‘mutton misdemeanour’? Possibly yes, if the phrase is felt to provide a catchy way of expressing a useful idea.

This is certainly true of our second phrase, ‘on the naughty step’. This started life in the British TV show Supernanny, where a woman called Jo Frost (the eponymous supernanny) explains her strict regime for dealing with ‘difficult’ children. One of her methods is to make the errant youngster stand on a step for ‘one minute per year of her age’, so that she learns the errors of her ways. This is called the Naughty Step. In this case, the phrase rapidly gained currency as an idiomatic expression (Google reports hundreds of thousands of uses), so the figurative use has become far more common than the original meaning. This shift from a literal to a figurative meaning is a common process in language.

Most of the vocabulary we use to talk about computing, for example, was created by recycling – through a process of metaphor – familiar words with literal meanings: window, virus, memory, clipboard, folder, wallpaper, and so on. An interesting member of this class is icon: unlike most computer vocabulary, icon in its original meaning (sense 3 in the dictionary) was never an everyday word in English. But this literal use has spawned two quite separate ‘new’ meanings, and the one used in computing – which is only about 25 years old – is now by far the most common. What we observe here is one of the central mechanisms by which words acquire new meanings: in a high proportion of cases, the journey (another metaphor) from an original to a newer meaning occurs when there is an implied resemblance between the two. The key to this is metaphor.

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