On Adding Phrases to the Language

A man who added phrases to the language

George Orwell was a fantastic essayist. One of my favorite of his small essays is his response to an essay by T.S. Eliot that assessed the life and work of Rudyard Kipling. I am not sure what it was about Rudyard Kipling that brought out the best in so many other intellectuals, but the attempts of Kipling’s contemporaries to summarize and respond to what they thought Kipling symbolized always produced interesting results. Orwell covers a lot of ground in his little essay, but I want to focus today on an observation Orwell makes about Kipling’s linguistic legacy:

Kipling is the only English writer of our time who has added phrases to the language. The phrases and neologisms which we take over and use without remembering their origin do not always come from writers we admire. It is strange, for instance, to hear the Nazi broadcasters referring to the Russian soldiers as ‘robots’, thus unconsciously borrowing a word from a Czech democrat whom they would have killed if they could have laid hands on him. Here are half a dozen phrases coined by Kipling which one sees quoted in leaderettes in the gutter press or overhears in saloon bars from people who have barely heard his name. It will be seen that they all have a certain characteristic in common:

East is East, and West is West.
The white man’s burden.
What do they know of England who only England know?
The female of the species is more deadly than the male.
Somewhere East of Suez.
Paying the Dane-geld.

There are various others, including some that have outlived their context by many years. The phrase ‘killing Kruger with your mouth’, for instance, was current till very recently. It is also possible that it was Kipling who first let loose the use of the word ‘Huns’ for Germans; at any rate he began using it as soon as the guns opened fire in 1914. 

But what the phrases I have listed above have in common is that they are all of them phrases which one utters semi-derisively (as it might be ‘For I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May’), but which one is bound to make use of sooner or later. Nothing could exceed the contempt of the New Statesman, for instance, for Kipling, but how many times during the Munich period did the New Statesman find itself quoting that phrase about paying the Dane-geld? The fact is that Kipling, apart from his snack-bar wisdom and his gift for packing much cheap picturesqueness into a few words (’palm and pine’ — ‘east of Suez’ — ‘the road to Mandalay’), is generally talking about things that are of urgent interest. It does not matter, from this point of view, that thinking and decent people generally find themselves on the other side of the fence from him. ‘White man’s burden’ instantly conjures up a real problem, even if one feels that it ought to be altered to ‘black man’s burden’. One may disagree to the middle of one’s bones with the political attitude implied in ‘The Islanders’, but one cannot say that it is a frivolous attitude. Kipling deals in thoughts which are both vulgar and permanent. This raises the question of his special status as a poet, or verse-writer.[1]

Some of these phrases (“paying the dane-geld”) have subsequently gone out of fashion, but there are others that Orwell does not list which are still uttered quite frequently today (e.g., “law of the jungle,” “the unforgiving minute”). Orwell was right: Kipling has added many phrases to the English language, while many “better” writers have failed to add a jot.

Adding a phrase to the language is the crowning reward a poet, novelist, or essayist can attain. It is an objective measure of value, a tricky problem for literary sets. Mathematicians, Adam Smith notes, are far less prickly than poets, because “they have the most perfect assurance of the truth and of the importance of their discoveries” irregardless “the reception which [their work] may meet with from the public.” In contrast, “the beauty of poetry is a matter of such nicety, that a young beginner can scarce ever be certain that he has attained it. Nothing delights him so much, therefore, as the favourable judgments of his friends and of the public; and nothing mortifies him so severely as the contrary.” From this flows so many of the plagues that blot literary life:

Mathematicians and natural philosophers, from their independency upon the public opinion, have little temptation to form themselves into factions and cabals, either for the support of their own reputation, or for the depression of that of their rivals. They are almost always men of the most amiable simplicity of manners, who live in good harmony with one another, are the friends of one another’s reputation, enter into no intrigue in order to secure the public applause, but are pleased when their works are approved of, without being either much vexed or very angry when they are neglected.

It is not always the same case with poets, or with those who value themselves upon what is called fine writing. They are very apt to divide themselves into a sort of literary factions; each cabal being often avowedly, and almost always secretly, the mortal enemy of the reputation of every other, and employing all the mean arts of intrigue and solicitation to preoccupy the public opinion in favour of the works of its own members, and against those of its enemies and rivals.[2]

Kipling was—and remains—the target of literary faction. He was not above responding in kind:

But I consort with long-haired things
In velvet collar-rolls
Who talk about the Aims of Art
And ‘theories’ and ‘goals’,
And moo and coo with womenfolk
About their blessed souls.[3]

But Kipling has outlasted almost all of his critics. The “aesthetics” lampooned in that last bit of verse are forgotten entirely today. Kipling is not. There is a magnetic quality to Kipling’s verses; untutored minds not taught before hand to reject the poet as an avatar of the hackneyed and the evil invariably find themselves drawn to his mesmerizing mnemonics whenever they first hear them.

But this post is not an apology for Rudyard Kipling. Orwell was right to credit Kipling for adding phrases to the English language. He was wrong to claim that Kipling was the only English writer of his time to do it. There is some irony in finding this claim in an essay by George Orwell which attacks the criticism of T.S. Eliot. Eliot would add several phrases to the language (“not with a bang but a whimper,” “April is the cruelest month,” “hollow men”). Orwell, though not a poet, would add even more:

Some animals are more equal than others
Big Brother is watching you
We have always been at war with Eastasia
Who controls the past controls the future
War is peace / Freedom is slavery / Ignorance is strength
Thought Police

To which might be added a dozen allusions to “2+2=5,””doubleplusgood,” “Ministry of Truth,” and boots stamping eternally on the human face that all educated Anglophones can reasonably be expected to recognize. George Orwell is not the only novelist to achieve these feats; Lewis Carol gave us almost as many (“through the looking glass”, “down the rabbit hole”, “Cheshire cat smile”, “off with her head,” “mad as a hatter”), and as late as 1962 Joseph Heller was able to add “catch-22” to the English lexicon. But adding phrases to the language is first and foremost a poet’s game.

So when did poets stop doing it?

There are different ways to mark when poetry left the public scene. One might ask, as I have just done, what is the last piece of verse to have “added a phrase to the language?” One might ask, as I recently did on twitter “what is the last poem that a plurality of educated American can be expected to recognize?” Or one might ask “who was the last poet who was a nationally or internationally known public intellectual (in their own lifetime)?” Or even, “Who was the last poet well known enough to have a caricature, a public persona?”

Moving backwards, Sylvia Plath is the most obvious answer to the last question; she is better known today for this persona than for any of her individual poems, none of which are popularly recognized. W.H. Auden was the last poet-as-public-intellectual with the learning or the skill to deserve that title, but I’ll concede that Allan Ginsberg and his beat brethren, none of whom were especially talented poets, were especially talented at leveraging their reputation as poets for public influence. The public controversy surrounding Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” was the last time the world of American letters cared about a poem. That poem (published in 1955) is one of the contenders for “the last poem educated Anglophones  can be expected to recognize.” Yet as something of a cultural touch-piece for rebels boomers, “Howl” seems to have limited purchase with more recent generations. I question whether it will be remembered in a decade or two. Certainly none of its phrases have been added to the language. Two poems come to mind as the last to definitively add a phrase to the English lexicon. The first is Langston Hughes’ “Harlem”:

What happens to a dream deferred? 

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run? 

Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet? 

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load. 

Or does it explode?

That poem was published in Hughes’ 1951 Montages of a Dream Deferred. All American school children study this poem at some point or another; the phrase that sticks is found both in the title of Hughes’ book and the first line of his poem: “a dream deferred.”

Also published that year was Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night. 

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night. 

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

One suspects that had this poem not been a villanelle, repeating “do not go gentle into that good night” and “rage, rage against the dying of the light” incantation-like, neither phrase would have entered the general lexicon. But the genius of poetry is in matching sentiment to form, and few poets chose their form so well as Thomas did here. Quoted liberally in 21st century science fiction films and TV serials,  both the poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and its two injunctions have been elevated into pieces of our language.

But Thomas was the last poet to succeed so brilliantly. This was with a poem published in 1951. His competitors for fame and memory—I have mentioned W.H. Auden, Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg, and Sylvia Plath, though a few more of the first generation to write after modernism might be added—wrote in the same era. Sylvia Plath was dead by 1963; Hughes died in ’67 and Auden in ’73. Ginsberg outlived them all for a few decades more, but his role at the center of the national conversation did not survive the hippies. The 1950s was the last decade that poets existed as more than a punch-line.

There are many reasons for why poetry from thence began dramatic decline. One of the more important is best grasped with a question: what now adds phrases to the language? Who has taken the poets place? It is not the novelists; I strain to find any who have added a catch phrase since Heller penned Catch-22. Nor is it the rappers, singers, and rock-stars that many claimed have replaced poetry in popular life. What actually replaced poetry was film. Review a few of the hundreds of lines from film scripts you unthinkingly reference or hear referenced every month:

I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse
We’re not in Kansas anymore
Here’s looking at you, kid
Go ahead, make my day.
Love means never having to say you’re sorry.
I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship
What we have here is a failure to communicate
There’s no place like home
I’m walkin’ here!
You can’t handle the truth!
Round up the usual suspects.
I’ll have what she’s having.
Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!
Life is like a box of chocolates
‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?
Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.
Elementary, my dear Watson.
Get your stinking paws off me!
You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!
That escalated quickly
Hasta la vista, baby.
I feel the need—the need for speed!

This is just a sliver of the hundreds of film scenes that are quoted and contorted every day. I used to actually teach many of these phrases—including the tone of voice with which they should be said—to Chinese students coming to America. Knowledge of the right time and the right way to say “I’ll be back” is a powerful form of cultural capital in modern American life—a cultural role that would have been played in past eras with quotations lifted from the Bible, Shakespeare, and the major English poets.

I will leave to it to the reader to determine which is to be preferred.

If this post on the social role of literature has caught your interest, consider reading my earlier posts “Shakespeare in American Politics” or “History is Written by the Losers.” To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] George Orwell, “Rudyard Kipling,” in Critical Essays (London: Secker and Warburg, 1946), essay originally published Frbruary 1942 fr Horizon magazine. Accessed here.

[2] Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 144-145.

[3] Rudyard Kipling, “In Partibus,Civil and Military Gazette (23 December 1889); accessed at the Kipling Society website, 14 October 2019.

[4] Excerpted in total from Scott Challener, ‘”Poetry Guide: Langston Hughes: “Harlem”,’ Poetry Foundation Website (25 September 2019). Challener’s short narrative includes a half dozen interesting facts about the poem and its publishing history that I did not know, and which are worth reading. 

[5] Dylan Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” poets.org (accessed 14 October 2019). 

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Maybe you should consider comedy. Monty Python has added plenty to phraseology every Brit recognises – spam, 'What have the Romans ever done for us?', He's not the Messiah', 'He is no more'.

Arguably The Simpsons has contributed more stock phrases and terms to Anglophone culture than any other work over the past thirty years.

You are correct generally, though I think I'd submit at least one phrase from literature that dates to later than 1962; "the banality of evil" comes from Hannah Arendt, was published in 1964, and is a common phrase heard today.

Game of Thrones seems to me to have added many phrases to the language ("winter is coming"; "when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die"; "chaos is a ladder"; there are certainly some I'm forgetting), which I suppose originated in literature, but these phrases only became common when the series was put to film. I don't know how many of these phrases will still be in use in 10-15 years, but there are enough I hear that some indeed might. There is at least one phrase that is current from Harry Potter ("you're a wizard, Harry"), but it was also popularized by the film, and Harry Potter never had that Kipling-esque/GoT reputation of being perceived as highbrow enough to be quoted by ordinary people while being lowbrow enough that they hear about it.

Perhaps song lyrics are a more literate comparison to poetry. Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, and Paul McCartney have all added richly to our lexicon.

Earlier today I sent an email saying that code changes "had left me, if I may quote Keith Richards 'at sixes and sevens and nines.'"