Use of metaphors and idioms adds colour to grammar

The Media Observer, a digital publication of the Media Council of Kenya gives new meaning to the idiom: ‘The pot calling the kettle black’. There is no denying that once in a while, readers come across factual and grammatical errors in our dailies; an anomaly the Media Observer set to remedy. Nevertheless, it is a task in which it has failed spectacularly.

At any given time, readers of the Media Observer will find more grammatical errors in a single issue than in all the daily newspapers put together.

The brains behind the Observer’s criticism of mainstream media, it would seem, have no clue what idiomatic expressions and metaphors are; don’t understand the application of standard phrases, or believe these are obsolete.

Consider this excerpt from the latest issue of the Observer:  ‘Let us join hands with the Observer in banning the following words and phrases from our reportage: “A whooping Sh xxxxx million” (figures have a way of getting whooping coughs in our reportage); “Residents are up in arms.” (Which arms? AK47s?); “Mixed reactions.” (In what ratio are they mixed? Half-half? Three-quarter-quarter?).

Then there are “irate residents” that are constantly taking to the streets, or, whenever they get happier, have “reason to celebrate” (is there a reason to mourn?) and lots of “raised eyebrows,” and fellows “smiling all the way to the bank.”

Whole body

At best, such logic is pathetic. If we were to employ this type of reasoning, what then would we make of idioms and phrases such as; ‘Hit the sack’ (go to bed); ‘Hit the road’ (embark on a journey), ‘War of words’ (dispute)? Would the first mean we get a club to hit a sack, or perhaps get a sledge hammer to hit the road? Would war of words mean we physically collect words, the same way we would collect stones, and start throwing them at each other?

This is quite ridiculous when one considers passages culled from the same issue of the Observer casting aspersion on the use of phrases aforementioned, which read; ‘Many people on either side of the political divide are unable to wrap their heads around the handshake’; ‘Who wouldn’t want to watch such a report?’ and  “you’re talking with this fellow. He asks you a question. You start to answer. His whole body looks like he’s listening to you. Intently. But in fact, he’s not. Instead, the fellow is thinking what he’s going to say next. You are not communicating”. The last two sentences are poor grammatical construction; a jumble of words.

Idiomatic expressions

Rather than the jumbled “his whole body looks like he is listening to you”, the writer should have simply used the phrase ‘his body language suggested’.  

Note, body language does not ‘say’, it ‘suggests’ (often subjective). Body language is a form of non-verbal communication. Unfortunately, the self-acclaimed Pen-cop at the Media Observer would most likely task us to explain in which language the body communicated; English, German, French, Dholuo, Luhya or Kikuyu?

It is preposterous that we are forbidden to use the phrase ‘mixed reactions’ by someone who wants us to ‘wrap our heads around’ and actually ‘watch a report’. Really? People watch documentaries or films, but read reports.

An earlier column stated that ‘Idiomatic expressions have a meaning different from the meaning of the words used in the statement.

As such, the real meaning is not readily apparent.

A metaphor on the other hand is defined as a figure of speech or phrase, a symbolism applied to an object to which it is not directly applicable. Unlike the complicated idiomatic expressions, metaphors are easy to understand’.

Common metaphors include; ‘iron lady’ (a lady with a character as tough as iron), ‘it is raining men’ (too many men out there) ‘drowning in a sea of grief’, ‘the apple of my eye’ and so forth. Such references serve to give effect to words that would easily sound bland.

While simply saying ‘so and so is sad’ captures the situation, the extent of the sadness is captured more aptly in the comparison made to the vastness and depth of the sea in the expression ‘drowning in a sea of grief’.

What the Media Observer found annoying; ‘up in arms’(protest), ‘Mixed reactions’(different emotions), ‘irate residents’, ‘reason to celebrate’, ‘raised eyebrows’(causing either surprise or disapproval), ‘smiling all the way to the bank’ fall under these classifications.

They cannot be wished away merely because someone at the Media Council misguidedly thinks they are unsuitable.

Mr Chagema is a correspondent at The [email protected]

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