Tag Archives: figurative language

“The American Revolution made us a nation independent from England, where…”

Factually accurate, somewhat patriotic in tone but not jingoistic: what’s your problem, Teach?

Everyone who has ever studied a language is acquainted with the term, or at least with the concept, idiomatic—or, as that language-instruction book Mark Twain rejoiced in would put it, “English as she is spoke.” A language as it is spoken by its own people will always contain some phrases or grammatical quirks that cannot be directly translated, or that defy parsing. Instances of this are generally referred to as idioms, and the language as used by native speakers is referred to as idiomatic language. You usually can’t learn it from a textbook.

Partly because the English language developed in such a wandering way, and partly because idiomatic language can embody cultural as well as linguistic history, English is particularly challenging to use idiomatically. And my student here went forward within his sentence with an idiomatic expression he was definitely not fully in control of:

“The American Revolution made us a nation independent from England, where every man is entitled to the sweat of his own brow.”

Now, “the sweat of one’s brow” is figurative language, or perhaps in the case of a commonly-used figure we may say an idiom, for hard work, especially physical toil. The farmer, halfway through plowing his rocky New England acre, pauses to mop his forehead. If the only way he can make a living, or enjoy the fruits of his labor, is by his own physical toil, we say he lives by the sweat of his brow. (I suppose if he’s enjoying fruits, my picture of him would work better if I made him pause to mop his brow on the ladder of his twentieth apple tree during harvest season; but “fruits” itself is figurative language for “results” or “products.” This paragraph is beginning to take me far afield (so to speak)! To return:

I knew what my student meant—The Revolution established the United States, where no landlord took the profits of the peasant’s toil. See, for instance, the arrangement that was already in the process of being put into place so effectively in Ireland, the landlord-tenant system that would exacerbate the “potato famine” there in the nineteenth century, like the feudal system that had maintained such sharp social and economic divisions in much of Europe throughout the Middle Ages. The worker toiled and sweated; the landlord (or the lord) took the profits and lived large.

So throwing off the yoke of England meant throwing off all vestiges of the feudal system.

What my student meant to say was that every man was entitled to the fruits of his own labor. Every man was entitled to benefit from the sweat of his brow. And he almost did say that.

The problem, of course, is that word “own.” When “own” joins the sentence and insists on modifying “brow,” a secondary idea creeps in with it. No longer is the student distinguishing who benefits from the sweat of a man’s brow, distinguishing between legitimate beneficiary and the implied illegitimate beneficiary, the “lord” of the English system; now he is identifying whose sweat constitutes the benefit.

So here’s the picture I get from this disfigurative language: Said farmer pauses in his plowing to mop his brow. In dashes a representative of the King of England, who snatches the handkerchief: “This sweat belongs to the King! Carry on!” If he’s a generous representative, he may have brought a soggy piece of cloth with him: “Here! This is John Doe’s handkerchief. This sweat’s for you!” And the farmer, saved by the Revolution, staunchly replies, “No! I am an American! That is MY sweat, from MY brow, and I’m entitled to it!” Fifty Minutemen emerge from behind the bushes, muskets at the ready, to support him, and the King’s representative skulks off (perhaps resigned to giving the King the sweat of John Doe’s brow instead). Who gets the actual fruits of his toil seems too unimportant to mention.

What will the farmer do with that hard-won sweat of his? I hate to think he will save it up to leave to his descendants…

“As a parent he clearly does not want to watch his son dig his own grave.”

Well, this is figurative language, or ought to be. Someone knowingly behaving badly, making unhealthy choices, is “digging his own grave.” This figure has been nicely turned in recent years by writers concerned with overeating: they say gluttonous eaters are “digging their own grave with a spoon.”

But the way this student uses the phrase, the figurative language loses its  poetic dimension and offers only a bizarre picture to us: Sonny is busy out back digging his own grave, and Dad doesn’t want to watch.

I’ve written frequently about the case of the ex-pro football-playing father killed his son to save him from the miseries of drug addiction. Students grappling with this case do tend to get lost in verbal tangles. Figurative language offers itself up on the sacrificial gridiron and is scorched beyond recognition. This example is just one of many.

Here, my student was right: the father believed his son, who had quit high school varsity sports and spent most of this time lying in his room listening to music and smoking marijuana or drinking “cheap wine,” was dooming himself to a slow and horrible death in some skid-row crack house. The son refused all offers of help with his “problem,” and of course Dad believed that the end was inevitable. Sonny was digging his own grave with his drop-out tune-out behavior. But my student’s earnest desire to emphasize this parental fear and filial self-destruction literalizes the sentence. Suddenly, Sonny is in the backyard digging his grave, and Dad is standing by the kitchen window, occasionally peeking out and then pulling the curtains closed again, not wanting to watch the digging. Clearly not wanting to watch. As a parent, and all.

Note that he does not want to watch. The sentence, though, makes no suggestion that Dad is trying to stop his son from doing all that digging. “Go on and dig,” he may have said to his son; “just don’t expect me to watch!”