November 27, 2005

Deep soup

An 11/27/1005 NYT article by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, "Look Who's Talking About Making a Comeback in the Senate", piles up quotes from politicians about Senator Trent Lott's activities and plans. One of them:

"He has to be in the soup," Mr. Livingston said, "and I think he's been frustrated over the last couple of years, not being in the position of leadership that he once was."

For me, "in the soup" is one of the various locative idioms for being in trouble -- up the creek, in a fix, in deep gumbo -- and the AHD agrees:

IDIOM: in the soup Slang Having difficulties; in trouble.

So does the OED, glossing it as "in a difficulty. orig. U.S.", with citations like

1889 Lisbon (Dakota) Star 26 Apr. 4/2 After collecting a good deal of money, the scoundrels suddenly left town, leaving many persons in the soup.
1939 H. G. WELLS Holy Terror I. ii. 38 We're in the soup... We've got to do 1914 over again.

James Briggs, in a discussion forum at, gives an explanation (attributed to a tour guide) in terms of the humiliating effects of access to soup kitchens during the Irish potato famine in the 1840s. This might be true, but having occasionally worked as a tour guide myself in college, I'm skeptical of the scholarly value of tour guide stories, and I should have thought that there are at least two obvious metaphorical routes to the expression that don't have any particular historical reference.

In any case, Robert L. Livingston ("a Republican from Louisiana who was due to become House speaker in 1998 but left Congress amid revelations of an extramarital affair") apparently meant "in the soup" to be one of the various locative idioms for being in the center of the action, like in the swim or in the mix. Certainly that's the way that the NYT article frames it, by putting it immediately after this:

Some thought Mr. Lott would quietly slink away, but instead he rebuilt his career as sort of a Republican Greek chorus. On any given Tuesday in the Capitol, when Republicans meet for their policy luncheons, Mr. Lott can be found afterward lingering in the corridors, surrounded by reporters eager for sharp sound bites from the former leader.

Livingston's usage might be a Louisiana regionalism, but it's probably just a mistake -- that is, a word substitution in the process of speaking -- or an individual misunderstanding of the meaning of the idiom, a sort of phrasal malapropism. (Of course, it could also be a transcription error by the reporter -- in fact, previous experience suggests that this has a high probability.)

Whatever the source of the mistake, it's a natural one. It's true that if you're an animal, then you'd prefer to stay in the woods or the farmyard rather than being killed, cut up and boiled. And if you're a human being, the idea of floundering in a mass of thick organic liquid is one that probably holds little appeal. On the other hand, if you're an ingredient, it's obviously better to be in the soup, mixing it up with all the others, rather than on the shelf, left unused because of your poor quality or the cook's lack of interest in your flavor.

The "good to be in the soup" metaphor is natural and reasonable, but it's normally blocked by the fact the our culture has chosen a "bad to be in the soup" connotation, whatever its historical or metaphorical underpinnings, as the conventional idiomatic force of the phrase. This tension between creativity and convention is one of the forces that drives language onward. When people complain about usage, it's often because these forces are felt to be out of balance. Someone uses a metaphor creatively but in a way that is discordant with conventional interpretations, if you happen to know them, or chooses a conventional expression that is felt to be over-used, or is used in a context where its literal meaning feels foolish, if you happen to think about it. In fact, it's hard to say or write anything that is immune to all criticism of this sort. When you add the goal of transmitting an intended message, it's amazing that any of us ever manages to make it through a paragraph unscathed.

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 27, 2005 08:41 AM