George Orwell's Dump

Because popular music is no stranger to questionable uses of the English language...

George Orwell is undoubtedly one of the most influential writers and thinkers of the 20th Century. He wrote piercing social commentary, devastating political allegory and dystopian visions of the future that still haunt our bookshelves today.

One of my favourite essays of his has always been ‘Politics and the English Language’, in which he bemoans the state of popular and academic prose.

I’m always drawn, in particular, to his thoughts on the nature of metaphor.

He writes:

‘A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image… But… there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.’

As a card-carrying member (see - dead metaphor for you there) of the pre-Love Island generation, this idea isn’t lost on me.

Metaphors ossify through thoughtless overuse until they simply lose all of their poetic power - especially when they become amalgamated into the meme-machine of the internet. See 2023 and its ’Red-flags’, ’Body-counts’ and people ‘Putting all [their] eggs in one basket’ as prime examples. That last one always strikes me as being oddly rural and charming for a phrase that has become synonymous with the act of second-guessing precisely which sun-tan oiled instagram model you’d most like to sleep with.

Now, popular music has never been a stranger to questionable uses of the English language.

Just ask Jay-Z and Alicia Keys.

‘New York… concrete jungle where dreams are made of’ is a phrase that makes literally no sense, for example.

Is it implying that dreams are made ‘of’ the ‘concrete jungle’ that is New York? Or that New York is the ‘concrete jungle’ where ‘dreams’ are made? Or that New York is a ‘concrete jungle’ made of ‘dreams’?

I don’t know, because the preposition - ‘of’ - is in an entirely unnatural and ambiguous place.

The phrase ‘concrete jungle’, though, is actually another nice example of one of Orwell’s ‘huge dump of worn-out metaphors’. We hear it used to describe a city so frequently that we barely even register its metaphorical implications anymore.

Which is a shame: it’s a subtle blending of industrial modernity and primitive violence that, the first time it was used, probably would have struck its readers as being a pretty clever phrase to have coined*. Maybe, then, to become an overused cliche somehow speaks to the Darwinian success of a metaphor.

Orwell’s point is also well-made, though, because it reminds us how a novel, unexpected metaphor can be strikingly powerful, forcing us to see the world in a slightly different way by blending strange concepts together.

Take TS Eliot’s famous opening to The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, for example, with all its laconic hopelessness:

‘Let us go then, you and I

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table’

Or, ask Paul Simon:

‘Losing love is like a window in your heart

Everybody sees you’re blown apart

Everybody feels the wind blow’

I’ve always thought, contrary to Orwell, that in one particular context the hackneyed, well-worn metaphor can still be treasured. And that context is Country and Western music.

The genre is littered with them.

  • ‘Live like You Were Dying’ (Tim McGraw)
  • ‘Behind Closed Doors’ (Charlie Rich)
  • ‘Killin’ Time’ (Clint Black)
  • ‘Home is Where the Heart Is’ (Lady Antebellum)
  • ‘Running on Empty’ (Jackson Brown)
  • ‘Heavy Is the Head’ (Zac Brown Band)
  • ‘I Saw the Light’ (Hank Williams)
  • ‘On the Other Hand’ (Randy Newman)

I could go on.

I think the reason that Country music gets away with raiding Orwell’s dump of dead metaphors so often, and so successfully, is that the genre itself is unashamedly littered with cliches to begin with.

It doesn’t try to innovate. It’s G major, C major and D major in various combinations on a Martin guitar. It’s songs about hard drinking, trucks driving and hearts breaking.

And that warm, familiar feeling we all get when the chorus rolls around is simply reinforced when we hear that cliched, idiomatic title roll inevitably off the tongue.

We don’t feel disappointed - we feel vindicated. We knew it was coming - we were simply waiting to see how we were going to get there.

And, let’s be fair: at least Country music doesn’t mess round with random, hanging prepositions like Jay-Z and Alicia Keys.

‘New York… concrete jungle where dreams are made of’

To dip one last time into Orwell’s dump of dead metaphors: what a crock of shit.

Keep dreaming,


Rob Jones & The Restless Dream

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