January 08, 2006

New swords for old

There's an article by Anne Kornblut and Glen Justice in this morning's NYT about the Alexander Strategy group: "Officials Focus on a 2nd Firm Tied to DeLay". It ends with this quote

"It's a double-edged sword, being known as DeLay Inc.," said one Republican lobbyist. "They are on the sharp edge of the sword now."

Swords are not part of Americans' everyday experience these days, and so the sword-related metaphors that we've inherited from earlier times are open for creative re-interpretation. A double-edged blade is traditionally one that has two cutting edges, and being sharp on both sides, can "cut both ways". This can make a double-edged sword or knife dangerous to its user. Instead, the anonymous lobbyist has taken the expression to refer the now-standard kind of blade, with one sharp edge and one dull one, and rekeyed the metaphor to the contrast between two different sides, not the symmetry of two similar ones. The new interpretation is like the familiar use of "two-sided coin", where the whole point is that the two sides are different -- see this article headlined "the two-sided coin of PA credentialing" for an example.

We've previously noted that this sort of thing has been happening to terminology associated with the harnessing of animals: "reigns of power", "unbrided fury", "yolked to the coloniser". In those cases, though, the result was an eggcorn; here's it's just a new interpretation of an old expression. And unlike the various new interpretations of "beg the question", this new interpretation happens to mean essentially the same thing as the old one .

Or does it? Well, that depends on what means means, I guess.

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 8, 2006 08:46 AM