Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Pens (poisoned), knives, shadows and footprints

with 6 comments

Jennifer Aniston at the 2008 Toronto Internati...
Image via Wikipedia

You can always tell when journalists are getting over-excited (and the sub-editor has gone for a tea break): their metaphors become a little, er, stretched. (To put it kindly.)

Writing about the less than spectacular box office performance of Jennifer Aniston’s latest film, Guy Adam opines in The Independent:

Six years after the show’s 238th and last episode, the cultural footprint of Friends remains so vast that every one of its stars remains firmly in its shadow.

Now, I’d quite like to witness the shadow of a footprint, but I’m guessing that the laws of physics (or some other more relevant science) mean that’s not going to happen any time soon.

The following, in the same article, is also suspect (if you want to be picky, and I do):

Little wonder, then, that followers of this most cut-throat of industries are currently unsheathing their poisoned pens.

The main definition of a ‘sheath’ is ‘a close-fitting cover for the blade of a knife or sword’. No mention is made in the Oxford Dictionary of English of it also meaning ‘the cap of a pen’. The definition of ‘unsheathe’ is to ‘draw or pull out a knife, sword or similar weapon from its sheath’.

I think the writer, having used the description ‘cut-throat’ must have been unconsciously thinking of the phrase ‘the knives are out for’ meaning ‘there is hostility towards’. But by the time the knives were being unsheathed they had become poisoned pens. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but that doesn’t make its cap a sheath.

I wouldn’t have got away with this kind of stuff when I was a jobbing journo. That’s all I’m saying.



6 Responses

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  1. Hi Deborah,

    In sort-of defence of Guy Adam, you can get a shadow within a particularly deep footprint (q.v. some of the Apollo moon pics of bootprints).

    Maybe that’s what he had in mind.

    Or not . . .


    26/09/2010 at 7:30 pm

    • Now come on, Ron — everyone knows the Moon landings were faked. The so-called ‘footprint shadows’ are key supporting evidence of that.


      26/09/2010 at 7:36 pm

      • OK – an hour before sunset on Kinder Scout, then. Forgot to mention you need a low sun.

        “. . .unsheathing their poisoned pens.”

        Er, it’s an analogy, like, innit?


        26/09/2010 at 7:42 pm

        • …a bad, inaccurate one.


          26/09/2010 at 8:00 pm

  2. Clearly should have been “taking out their poisoned pens from their Hello Kitty pencil cases.”

    Michael Farrell

    26/09/2010 at 8:43 pm

    • So obvious, now you’ve said it! Thanks, Michael.


      26/09/2010 at 9:23 pm

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