The Compulsive Copyeditor

May 1, 2014

Fossil Mixed Metaphors

Most high-flown abstract words started life as physical, material metaphors, colorful analogies between actions of the body and actions of the mind. (To “deliberate” is to weigh.) The root words for those physical actions still lie buried inside their abstract descendants. Because I feel the roots of words (do I need a root canal?), it really bothers me when abstractions are put together whose underlying physical actions do not go together at all, but clash absurdly.

The example I’m looking at right now is “precipitated a quagmire.” You can’t do that, somehow.

“Quagmire,” like most Anglo-Saxon words, is a much “younger” abstraction than the Latinate “precipitate.” That is, you can still hear the metaphor loud and clear. A “quagmire” is barely one step removed from a quaking bog in which you would “bog down” (heh) and flounder: a slower sort of quicksand. In Latinate words, on the other hand, the physical root is hidden and forgotten, unless you take an obsessive kind of interest in these things. “Precipitate” is, thanks to the indispensible Online Etymology Dictionary, “from Latin praecipitatus, past participle of praecipitare ‘to throw or dive headlong,’ from praeceps ‘steep, headlong, headfirst’ (see precipice). Meaning ‘to cause to happen, hurry the beginning of’ is recorded from 1620s. Chemical sense is from 1620s; meteorological sense first attested 1863.”

Look at the layers of metaphor in that abstraction! It’s a thing of beauty, like a first-rate geological dig site. It goes back to “prae-ceps,” “first-head,” and a precipice is something you fall off headfirst. It’s interesting too that the chemical sense and the metaphorical sense (“to cause to happen, hurry the beginning of”) date to the same time. What is the physical action behind that metaphorical sense of the word? Is it the chemical meaning — when a solid suddenly forms out of a solution — or is it getting something rolling by pitching it downhill?


Blog at