It’s Just a Few Bad Apples

Welcome to another of my occasional rants about the use and misuse of the English language. Previous entries have included people who talk about their bandwidth and the irritating habit of writing “See what I did there?” after a pun.

Today, I’d like to talk about the phrase “a few bad apples.” The thing is, it’s been completely disconnected from its linguistic moorings. The original proverb, as all good farmers know, is:

“One bad apple spoils the barrel.”

But that’s not how people are using it any more. Nine times out of ten, when you see any reference to bad apples, it’s the head of some organisation trying to claim there’s no systemic problem of racism/corruption/incompetence or whatever they’re being accused of, passing the problem off as “just a few bad apples.”

Why Does Language Matter?

Who cares about what bad apples really do when thrown in a barrel? Isn’t it just pedantic to quibble about stuff like this? Isn’t it just a shift in meaning that we should all get used to?

I don’t think so. Language reflects thought processes, and fuzzy language reflects fuzzy thinking. When someone claims racist cops are just a few bad apples, what they mean to say and what they are saying are at odds.

What they mean to say is that this is an isolated problem that doesn’t deserve serious attention. What they are actually saying is that the rot will spread from those bad apples to infect the entire police force, which is the opposite of what they intended.

When language is misused, clear thinking becomes difficult, and people make bad decisions. George Orwell explained this beautifully in his essay Politics and the English Language. He talks about self-perpetuating processes, in which causes and effects work together to create a vicious cycle:

“It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

But Orwell believed that the process was reversible—we can learn to speak and write more clearly, and hence to think more clearly.

“Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.”

Ah, political regeneration—that’s not a phrase you hear very often these days, but I think we could definitely use some of it. Orwell shows in his essay how politicians often use language to obscure meaning rather than to clarify it, a concept that formed an important part of his novel Nineteen Eighty Four a few years later, with the meaning-distorting language of Newspeak.

Other Bad Apples

In the English langauge, the rot is spreading. Here’s another example: when people talk about fighting “fire with fire”, they mean standing up to an aggressive enemy with equal force. It’s a good thing, a brave thing. Here’s Trump saying the U.S. needs to fight fire with fire to win the war against terrorism, for example.

But, if you think about it for about a second and a half, fighting fire with fire is incredibly stupid. Ask a firefighter if you’re not sure. They’ll tell you that fighting fire with fire leads to an inferno. It’s actually an apt metaphor for the use of violence to solve disputes in my opinion, but it’s the opposite of what people are trying to say when they use the phrase.

When people say “With all due respect,” they’re about to say something very disrespectful. When people say “Not to be racist/sexist/rude,” they’re about to say something racist, sexist and/or rude.

When people say “literally,” they probably don’t mean it literally. When people say “basically,” they often don’t mean anything at all.

Cynical people will delight in telling you that it’s a dog eat dog world, without ever stopping to consider that dogs eating other dogs is an incredibly rare occurrence. It may happen in specific cases such as near starvation, a mother eating a stillborn puppy, etc., but surely it’s not characteristic of the world. Yet we thoughtlessly repeat these worn-out phrases, even using them to help us create a distorted and harmful world view.

Give me a few more minutes, and I’ll come up with a dozen more examples of unclear thinking reflected in unclear language. Alternatively, just listen to a speech by one of the leaders of the free world, and you’ll discover dozens more of your own.

On the other hand, maybe I’m wrong to worry so much about all this. Maybe it’s just a few bad apples.

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There are 6 comments

  1. Love this! I am in agreement with you, though I don’t know what comes first, sloppy thinking or sloppy language. Once it gets going though it seems to create its own terrible feedback loop. I have a coworker who frequently prefaces things with, “I’m not gonna lie” and it makes me grind my teeth. I want to ask her if all the other things she said were lies. I’m sure I have some verbal tics, we all do, but I try to weed out the most egregious as best I can.

    1. It’s interesting how many of these things come from coworkers, isn’t it? Maybe it’s because we spend so much time together but don’t have the level of familiarity to be able to say “Stop that!” as we would with a family member or spouse. Or I wonder if it’s something about the work environment itself that tends to lead to jargon and other annoying phrases. I don’t mind verbal tics per se, but I think that one would make me grind my teeth too!

  2. One expression that annoys me is “head over heels in love.” The person who says this means that she has been turned upside-down by a new and powerful emotion. But if you think about it, our heads are over our heels most of the time–at least during waking hours. What is meant and what should be said is “heels over head in love.”

    1. Oh, I’d never thought of that one, Richard! It’s a phrase I avoid just because it’s a cliche, but it hadn’t occurred to me that it’s also illogical. You’re quite right. I suppose the slightly vulgar British phrase “arse over tit” would be more anatomically accurate, but it would lose something in the area of romance…

    2. Just found that the original phrase from the 14th century was your version, Richard, and it got corrupted in the 18th into its current form:

      This expression began life as heels over head, a far more logical description of being turned upside down, and appeared in print in a collection of Early English Alliterative Poems dating from ca. 1350. Four hundred years later an unknown poet turned the saying around: “He gave [him] such an involuntary kick in the face as drove him head over heels” (The Contemplative Man, 1771). This corruption stuck, but the principal sense in which the term is now used dates only from the nineteenth century. An early appearance in print is in David Crockett’s Narrative of the Life of David Crockett (1834): “I soon found myself head over heels in love with this girl.”

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