Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


I have commented before (here and here) on the weird linguistic phenomenon of clichés being modified to eliminate their actual meaning. Here is an example from yesterday’s BBC report on David Cameron’s attempts to convince other European leaders to support his efforts to rescue his leadership of a fractured Conservative Party reform the European Union:

This was a chance to try to repair burned bridges.

The whole idea of the expression “burn your bridges” is that THERE’S NO MORE BRIDGE! You can’t repair it! Sure, in reality a burned bridge might not have burned completely, so repairs could still be undertaken. But why invoke a metaphorical burned bridge if you actually mean to play down the burn?

What is the writer thinking? “Many people complain that David Cameron has burned his bridges to fellow European leaders. While this is true, those bridges are constructed largely of metaphorical stone, so the damage from burning is not nearly as great as if they had been constructed of metaphorical wood, and repairs are still eminently possible.

“Some in the Conservative Party argue for dynamiting the main pylons of the metaphorical bridges. Metaphorically.”

One might similarly tell of how Alexander the Great, on arriving in Persia, ordered that the ships be burned. But only on the edges, of course, because otherwise they would no longer be seaworthy.

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