March 15, 2004

Clichés, stereotypes and other obsolete metaphors

Having found Tom Mangan's excellent "collection of reviled news media cliches", it occurred to me to wonder about the word cliché itself. It turns out to be a metaphorical extension of a technical term from an obsolete printing method known as stereotyping.

The first sense of cliché in the OED is:

1. The French name for a stereotype block; a cast or ‘dab’; applied esp. to a metal stereotype of a wood-engraving used to print from.
Originally, a cast obtained by letting a matrix fall face downward upon a surface of molten metal on the point of cooling, called in English type-foundries ‘dabbing’.

And stereotype in turn, in its literal sense, is both a relatively recent invention and an obsolete one:

1. The method or process of printing in which a solid plate or type-metal, cast from a papier-mâché or plaster mould taken from the surface of a forme of type, is used for printing from instead of the forme itself.

1798 Ann. Reg. Chron. 22 The celebrated Didot, the French printer, with a German, named Herman, have announced a new discovery in printing, which they term stereotype.

The OED's second sense of cliché -- equally obsolete -- is a photographic negative. It's not until the third sense that we get to the only use that's current:

3. a. fig. A stereotyped expression, a commonplace phrase; also, a stereotyped character, style, etc.

The earliest uses of this sense are from the 1890s:

1892 A. LANG in Longman's Mag. Dec. 217 They have the hatred of clichés and commonplace, of the outworn phrase, of clashing consonants. 1895 Westm. Gaz. 19 Apr. 3/2 The farcical American woman who ‘wakes everybody up’ with her bounding rapidly becoming a cliché, both on the stage and in fiction.

Before 1890, people must have used a range of English words and phrases for this concept: commonplace, hackneyed expression, etc.

I wonder about the history of cliché in French -- when Flaubert wrote his Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues (unfinished at his death in 1880), did he avoid using the term cliché because he thought that idée reçue and locution reçue ("received idea" and "received phrase") were more apt, or because the term cliché wasn't used then in its modern, metaphorical meaning in French either?

Tom Mangan offers a quote from George Orwell as the epigraph for his "collection of reviled news media cliches": "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print." If you really tried to put that advice into effect, you'd find it difficult to write anything at all. Most of the common meanings of most of the words and phrases we use are metaphorical in origin -- including cliché and stereotype. I prefer the way that Geoff Pullum put it, in a Language Log post that Mangan also quotes:

Dennis, I want to make a suggestion to you about your use of hackneyed phrases in kit form to launch articles, and it's this: get a life. Think up some novel stuff. Don't be an indolent hack, use your left brain. Don't just make trips up the well-worn staircase to the attic full of dusty phrasal bric-a-brac that journalists keep returning to time after time after time.

There's no special value in avoiding metaphors and collocations that have been used in print before -- that's very difficult to do, and not especially worthwhile, like writing a novel without using the letter E. The thing to avoid is writing without thinking.

[Update 3/16/2004: John Kozak emailed:

I had an discussion with a typographer once in the 80s; I used the term "hardwired" in its (now) standard metaphorical sense, and got a bit of a ticking-off for polluting the language with these ghastly tech metaphors. Esprit d'escalier later handed me the insight that an awful lot of our contemporary mental toolkit is derived from the technology of printing. Like "matrix" of course - how else to get from a brood cow to a rectangular grid of numbers?

I got the same feeling browsing through Bucks' IE dictionary once: a ridiculous fraction of vocabulary seemed to derive from metaphorical extensions of droving.

John is absolutely right that "technology" -- in a sense broad enough to include agriculture and animal husbandry -- has always been a major source of conceptual and lexical metaphors.

With respect to his particular example of matrix, I'm not sure whether the mathematical use comes from the typographer's term or not. The OED gives examples of the meaning "womb or uterus" from 1425; the general extended sense glossed as "A place or medium in which something is originated, produced, or developed; the environment in which a particular activity or process begins; a point of origin and growth" has citations from 1586; the typographer's sense glossed as "a metal block in which a character is stamped or engraved so as to form a mould for casting a type" dates from 1626. The mathematical usage dates only from 1850, and is quoted below. It seems as likely to be a specialization of the general extended sense, as a metaphorical extension of the typographer's use, which seems to have dealt with moulds for individual letters rather than arrays of such moulds.

1850 J. J. SYLVESTER in Philos. Mag. 37 369 We..commence..with an oblong arrangement of terms consisting, suppose, of m lines and n columns. This will not in itself represent a determinant, but is, as it were, a Matrix out of which we may form various systems of determinants by fixing upon a number p, and selecting at will p lines and p columns, the squares corresponding to which may be termed determinants of the pth order.


[Update 3/17/2004. John Kozak emailed in response:

I'd mis-remembered the printers' usage of "matrix" - what I was thinking of was (my source here is Hugh Williamson's "Methods of Book Design") a "matrix-case", which is a grid of different "slugs". Interestingly, Williamson seems to say that an individual slug cast from a matrix was also called a matrix, so there's clearly a fair bit of semantic slippage going on here.

I don't know how old matrix-cases are, but the illustration in Williamson looks C19 to me.

I'm way out of my history-of-technology depth here. But the trusty OED does have as one of the meanings of Monotype

3. (With capital initial.) The proprietary name of a composing machine consisting of two units, a keyboard which produces the perforated paper tape used to control the caster, which produces type in individual characters.

with citations suggesting invention about 1893, and use of the term matrix-case in exactly the way that John suggests:

1893 Official Directory World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago) 459/1 Lanston Monotype Machine Co., Washington, D.C. Monotype Machine. 1895 Current Hist. (Buffalo) V. 961 The Lanston Monotype..invented by Tolbert Lanston, of Washington, D.C. marks an important advance in the development of typographical art..both a type-setting and a type-casting machine. [...] 1965 J. MORAN Composition of Reading Matter vi. 65 The Monotype machine consists of two unitsthe keyboard and the caster. By operation of the keyboard a paper ribbon is perforated by means of compressed air. The ribbon is fed into a caster which carries a matrix-case. This moves to different positions in accordance with the perforated ribbon and molten metal is pumped into the appropriate matrix. Cast types are ejected singly and assembled in a channel until a line is completed. [...]

And here is a very clear explanation, with pictures. The matrix-case seems to be 16x16. Here is something called The Monotype Chronicles, by Lawrence W. Wallis, which indicates that Langston was born in 1844, and starting applying for his patent(s) in 1885, and got them in 1887. So the OED's first citation is about six years late -- though Wallis also indicates that the first press notice wasn't until 1891 -- but Langston's invention is in any case too late to have played a role in Sylvester's 1850 innovation of the term matrix for a two-dimensional array of numbers.

So unless there was an earlier piece of printing technology involving arrays of elements called "matrix-cases" (or some other name involving matrices), it looks like Sylvester's "as it were, a Matrix" is a reference to the more general meaning, inspired by his view of a matrix as a source of "systems of determinants".]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 15, 2004 09:40 AM