ENGLISCH/841: Questions to Mrs Gobbledygook (161) Weeds grow apace (SB)


161. More horticultural metaphors

Dear Mrs Gobbledygook

...In most languages you find special expressions or idioms which can be recognized as part of strong language. Now, daisies, buttercups or double daisies and other small flowers are ill weeds, as an English friend explained to me. But if he - on the other hand - used the word "weed", his mother used to ask him not to use strong language. Is there some hidden meaning someone like me doesn't understand, or how can I learn to understand the hint? ...

Yours sincerely,

Franziska E. (from St. Anton, Austria)


Dear Mrs Erler

According to my dictionary a "weed" or more accurate an "ill weed" is a wild plant growing very quickly where it's not wanted. An English saying goes: "Ill weeds grow apace" which means the same as the German "Unkraut vergeht nicht".

But wether you like it or not it depends where you live and what you like to eat. In some places certain weeds are considered a delicacy in the kitchen. In other places the same weeds are thrown away and destroyed. When you want to remove this unwanted plants you will say:

"We really have to weed the garden if we are going to plant before summer arrives." (which means: Its time to remove all those weeds).

But metaphorically speaking if we want to remove unwanted people or other things, we can "weed them out". For example in selecting people to go and work in another country:

"We must weed out all those who don't speak a foreign language."

Or more importantly:

"We must weed out all those who haven't got passports."

But in this context you would certainly not consider the expression "to weed out" as strong language. "Everything in the garden is lovely" - so the saying goes and so it is usually. But not always. Strange and disturbing things can be found in the flower bed of metaphors and as soon as you start digging, there is a lot to weed out.

If you have a closer look at the English language you will be probably surprised by the multiplicity of flowery and gardening expressions in the English language. But it would be less astonishing if you take in consideration that the English are very fond (and foolish) of gardening. So many metaphorical used expressions have to do with the garden, growing flowers and vegetables and other gardening.

Here are some examples:

If there is a problem then we could use the word "root" instead of "weed". "Root" is that part of a plant that is below the ground. And if we want to discover the origin or course of something we might say, for example, when many workers are continually late:

"It is most important that we get to the root of this problem. Let's set up a committee to investigate the course."

If we also want to remove and not just find the course then we would need to root out the course as in this situation:

"I think, that if we stop the pay of all those late to work we will very quickly root out the problem."

And we will need to do this quickly before the problem "takes root". Before it becomes accepted and quite normal. The idea of equality of pay of men and women still hasn't really taken root.

"Weed" has also got metaphorically uses, when it's used as a noun. First it is a synonym for something to smoke, a cigarette or a cigar. "Soothing weed" is another word for tobacco. But usually it suggests something feeble and weak. Which is odd when you think about it. The weeds in my garden are amazingly strong and determined. However if a person is a weed it is the opposite of strong and energetic as in this example:

"Everyone wants to go out walking except Arthur. He wants to stay in and watch television. He's such a weed."

"He's a bid wet"

you might also say. If someone is "weedy", it suggests something more permanent. That person is actually physically weak or ill.

"We can't have Jim in the team. He is so weedy. He'll never be able to keep up with the rest."

A thing can be "weedy" if its also feeble and not very

"What a weedy idea for a film. The story is really pathetic."

And that is all I can find in our metaphorical garden at the moment. But as you can imagine there is a lot more definitely blooming and you will certainly blossom if you weed the bad ones out.


Mrs Gobbledygook

14 April 2009