Like a reel in which the dancers form two rows, so that one of their number can come skipping brightly down the aisle, a concern of the Count’s would present itself for his consideration, bow with a flourish, and then take its place at the end of the line so that the next concern could come dancing to the fore.

– Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow (2017)

Trouble getting to sleep is a nightmare, except that you have to be asleep to have a nightmare. Towles compares the activity of the mind when it is trying and failing to fall asleep to a reel – a form of line dancing for lords and ladies. Worries take turns stepping forward, then retreat to the end of the line as the next worry comes up.

A dance is an orderly presentation. What goes on in the mind of a would-be sleeper is more a meandering, tumbling, often discontinuous succession of excerpts from the day, scripts for what might have been, feelings relived over and over, and details to be dealt with in the morning. Pre-sleep mental activity could be compared to the surging and swirling of seawater in tidepools, but the widely accepted metaphor is stream of consciousness.

Psychologist Alexander Bain coined that expression in 1855, describing how various sensations come together in “one common stream of consciousness – in the same cerebral highway” (The Senses and the Intellect). As the highway reference makes clear, the stream that Bain had in mind was a stream of traffic – a convergence of horse-drawn carriages.

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BREAKING NEWS

– CNN, every six minutes or so

Breaking news sounds like a comparison to a breaking wave – a massive event with a rush of consequences – but the origin of the phrase is less dramatic. It comes from the expression “break the news (to somebody),” as in break it to them gently.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives early examples of break being used to mean “reveal” or “disclose.” In The Paston Letters (1474), “she brake hyre harte” means she opened her heart, as if it were a container. In the 1500s, “break the matter” and “break the business” meant introduce a topic for discussion. By the early 1700s, break the news to someone was a familiar expression.

In a search of Google Books, the earliest use of breaking news specific to journalism is from The Detroit News, a 1918 booklet by Lee A. White. He defines breaking news as “the immediate and palpitating story, fresh from telegraph or telephone…”

The managers took advantage of the recent hiccup in the market to buy the dividend units at a lower price.

The Times (London), May 20, 1972

Before the metaphorical hiccup came along in the mid-1960s, writing about hiccups was mainly about spelling and possible cures.

The hickop (1580), hikup (1581), and hecup (1635) must have all sounded more or less the same, as listed in the Oxford English Dictionary. In Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), Robert Burton says the condition can be cured by a false accusation, which distracts the afflicted person from their hickehope. R. Bradley Chomel’s Dictionaire Oeconomique (1727) recommends suddenly pulling their ring finger.

Francis Bacon reports in Sylva Sylvarum (1626) that “Sneezing doth cease the Hiccough.” The hiccough spelling was a rationalization, based on the belief that inhalation and exhalation spasms were related. Philosophically and medically, the collision of a hiccup and sneeze in the windpipe is something too terrible to contemplate.

The advent of the metaphorical hiccup brought a fundamental change in concept and imagery, and much less attention to serial hiccups. The metaphorical hiccup is always a singular event, a momentary interruption that doesn’t need a cure. It’s an anomaly, a blip, a glitch, a one-off, a quirk, a freak, an outlier, nothing to worry about.

In Burmese, informers are sometimes called “pasein yo,” literally “the handle of the axe,” signifying that the weapon used to chop down the tree is made from the wood of the tree itself.

– Emma Larkin, Finding George Orwell in Burma (2005)

In English, synonyms for informer tend to be vehement rather than metaphorical. A rat is a despised animal but not a betrayer. Comparisons to Judas or Benedict Arnold are usually of the “as bad as” type – name-calling rather than imaginative comparison. Turncoat has the idea of a group member being used against the group – as with the ax handle and the tree – but is not so much a comparison as a label or nickname referencing switched uniforms (see definition of metonymy).

Stool pigeon is the genuine article, comparing the methods of con artists to the methods of hunters. Hunters used to tie a pigeon to a perch or stool to lure other pigeons. Con artists used a fake customer to lure the unwary into rigged games of chance. This meaning is from the early 1800s, according to the OED. By the mid-1800s, stool pigeon also came to mean a police informer, a criminal used to catch other criminals.

Photo: Karl Stull

I’ve got buns of steel!

– Student to fitness instructor Greg Smithey, 1985

The first baring of buns as a euphemism for buttocks came in the early 1960s. People needed a word that was neither vulgar nor clinical for a part of the body that was until then unmentionable in polite conversation. Context and the dome shape of a bakery bun made it clear which part of the anatomy was being referenced – in a coy, tittering way.

In short order, the metaphor became a dead metaphor (the reference to hamburger toppers faded away). Buns became an everyday synonym for buttocks in a new era, as ideas about the ideal body type for women shifted from soft and curvy to athletic – strong, hard, lean. Shape magazine began publishing in 1981.

In terms of imagery, buns of steel are the antithesis of bakery buns. No one is intimidated when bakery buns enter the room.

Photo: Karl Stull

Race against time

You can’t race against time – any more than a runner can race against the racetrack. A fish cannot outswim the sea, nor can a bird fly above the atmosphere.

However, it is possible to imagine a race against the clock. On the day Roger Bannister ran a mile in under four minutes (May 6, 1954), he circled the track faster than a clock’s second hand swept around its circle. Even so, though Bannister beat the clock, he did not outrace time. Crossing the finish line, he was 3:59.4 minutes older than when the race started.

Consider an alternative scenario:

Time is a train, heading to Buffalo.

A runner in the caboose advances from car to car toward the locomotive, moving toward Buffalo faster than time itself. The runner climbs onto the cowcatcher in front and, with a hypothetical leap, arrives in Buffalo before the train of time – an achievement of infinite phenomenological significance but, alas, a very brief moment of victory (even Bannister got to hold his record for 46 days).

Is time like a train? Or is it more like a river, which is already joined to the sea before any boat can begin racing downstream?

In a search of Google Books, the earliest instance of “race against time” occurs in 1788, when the author of The Annual Register, Or a View of the History, Politics, and Literature for the Year, promises he will write unhurriedly.

Photo: Karl Stull

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She promptly brought the King out of his dreams with a brisk and cordial tongue-lashing.

– Mark Twain, The Prince and the Pauper (1881), ch. 19

The farm wife asked the King to keep an eye on things in the kitchen, but he got distracted and all the food on the stove was burned; hence, the tongue-lashing. Tongue-lashing was still a new word when The Prince and the Pauper was published, but people had been comparing the tongue to a weapon for quite some time. As Christopher Ness observed in 1690, “Tongue-smiting is as smart as any hand-smiting.”

The poet John Milton and others complained about tongue-fencers, who pretended to rapier wit. The playwriting team of Beaumont and Fletcher cautioned against tongue-bolts, suggesting the mouth is like a crossbow (1622). Nathaniel Lee made the whip comparison in the tragedy Theodosius (1680): “And let thy lawless tongue lash all it can.”

By the early 1880s, Americans had also begun using the expression “shoot your mouth off.”

Illustration: From an 1822 advertisement for the Regent coach; janeaustenlondon.com

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