Abraham Lincoln wrote, "Fourscore and seven years ago our
fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation." Certainly the
signers of the Declaration of Independence, all male, were among
those in Lincoln's mind when he wrote his famous words. But the
image, "fathers," cannot be construed that narrowly. Lincoln was
being metaphorical, not literal, and in more ways than one.
There are those who would complain that a phrase like "our
fathers" should, in today's discourse, be replaced by "our forebears,"
Lincoln's image having had the effect of excluding women. But women
aren't the only group a literal mind would find excluded from the
Gettysburg Address. Some of the July 4 signers were grandfathers
or great-grandfathers of his audience's generation, of whom some,
moreover, were not descendants at all. Did Lincoln mean to
exclude immigrants from those whose "fathers" had brought forth a
new nation? "Forebears" solves the grandfather problem, to
be sure, but some other device will have to be inserted to include the
Just the same, there is no denying that Lincoln's choice of
metaphor, "fathers", came naturally to a man who lived, politically,
among men only. Other influences argued for that metaphor, too:
Lincoln's era was one whose most formative literary influence was
the King James Bible, where patriarchs abound, and fathers of the
church as well. Lincoln's "fathers", then, was apparently natural,
meaning not much more than "predecessors" to the average man in
his audience, and yet -- carrying a religious flavor and a feeling of
personal engagement that only metaphor could so poignantly convey.
It is in the nature of poetry to exclude much, the better to point to
some essence that literal discourse obscures. Lincoln was a poet here;
to change a single word of it
would be a crime.
In the development of a language -- every language, as linguistic
scholars tell us -- what begins
as metaphor ultimately dwindles
into standard speech. The metaphor begins life visibly as a figure
of speech, lively, perhaps shocking. It might substitute a surprising
example for the class of which it is (nonetheless) a representative
member, or one thing for an analogous thing, or a curious quality of
the thing for the thing itself. There are many ways, more or less
poetic, to improve, clarify or dramatize one's statements with metaphor.
("Metaphor" itself is here being used metaphorically, to include a
number of figures of speech
with various technical names.
Lincoln's "fathers" is in prosody called a synecdoche.)
In time, however, as the language ages, the metaphorical
flavor of the substitution gets forgotten, and as Fowler says, the
new word or phrase becomes a "dead metaphor," used by later
generations as if it had always meant literally what it means now.
A "task force", for example, was originally a military grouping
established temporarily to accomplish a limited, well-defined task of
killing or destruction. It was not a standing force, as would be a
division or regiment with honored name and ancient glory. And it
was a specifically military group, intended to accomplish its mission
by force -- of arms. But it would be incorrect to say "task force"
ever had the literal meaning just given, because etymologically,
"force" derives from the Latin word for "strength," so that to use the
word in "task force" already uses a notion of strength to represent
a group of armed men.
Metaphors, moreover, tend to accrue in layers. As the metaphor
dies and becomes a word, that
word might get used again,
thoughtlessly, as metaphor for yet another entity. Thus etymological
chains grow long and irrational, as anyone may discover by tracing a
few in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Recently it has become popular, in universities at least, to call
by the name "task force" what used to be called "ad hoc committee."
Old-timers like myself may
smile to think that the anti-Vietnam
War generation, the professors and Deans of today who in 1968
were excoriating all things military and driving the ROTC off the cam-
puses, are today placidly likening their curricular committees to
echelons of riflemen backed by tanks and aircraft; but most of those
using the phrase "task force" today no longer think of it as meta-
phor. To them that committee simply is a task force; that's the
word for it.
In time, even my generation will die out, and nobody will be
left to smile. Fifty years from now only scholars rooting about in
libraries will recognize the shameful military origin of "task force."
Someone then might try to call it to the attention of his colleagues,
however, for the sake of the public morality. Even among scholars.
One can therefore imagine in a 21st Century Faculty Meeting some such
scene as this:
"How can you," the indignant professor of 20th Century
history declaims, having in his studies discovered truth, "invoke
this barbarous military terminology when speaking of a peaceable
committee of professors working together for the common good?
How dare you call seven of your colleagues a murderous, fire-spitting
task force? Next, you'll be justifying Hiroshima! Have you no
Probably he is laughed down: What fire? What murder?
The damn thing is merely a task force, they will protest, puzzlement on
their faces. ("What's Hiroshima?", the professor of sociology asks in
a whisper. "I think it's a city," his neighbor replies.) "Order!" says
the Dean, and the task force continues its report.
The old term, "ad hoc committee", it will in due course be explained,
can no longer be used in university announcements because while scholars
still mired in "Western" culture may remember what "ad hoc" means, it is
in fact an elitist, even xenophobic affectation to use Greek or Latin
phrases. In a sensitive 21st Century collegiate setting such tags are
"an affront to those whose ancestral languages do not have Latin roots,"
according to the Consolidated University Code on Language Sensitivity
(Section 32(b)). As one wag has put it, “The use of foreign words or
phrases is passι.”
Ancestral "languages"? Can 32(b) refer to mother tongues?
How easily one can fall from grace even when legislating sensitivity:
"Language" is itself a dead metaphor, startlingly so, for example,
in the name American Sign Language, a tongue whose tools are the hands.
This particular metaphor, derived from the Latin "lingua", is so dead that
the deaf do not yet think to object to it on political grounds.
There are rich ores of scholarship yet to be mined by those
looking for offense. And when their researches are complete our
deaf will have no languages, our pacifists no task forces, and our
ladies no fathers.
Ralph A. Raimi
4 April 1995