In Orwell's famous article "Politics and the English Language," he writes:

DYING METAPHORS. A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically "dead" (e.g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles' heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a "rift," for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying.

I believe I do know what a rift is, but I am unsure if I get his meaning here. In the catalogue of worn-out metaphors preceding this question, there is no mention of (and as far as I can see, no allusion to) "rift".

What is his meaning here?


Orwell was referring directly to the metaphor rift within the lute, a tiny flaw which will inevitably destroy the whole. Your copy of Orwell is corrupted. The correct list reads:

Ring the changes on, take up the cudgels for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, rift within the lute, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed.¹

The originator of this metaphor is Alfred Tennyson (Lord Tennyson). The poem “Merlin and Vivien”, part of his poem cycle “Idylls of the King”, tells how Vivien seduced and imprisoned the wizard Merlin. Within it, Tennyson invents a song, which warns that any small unfaith will destroy love:

In Love, if Love be Love, if Love be ours,
Faith and unfaith can ne’er be equal powers :
Unfaith in aught is want of faith in all.

It is the little rift within the lute,
That by and by will make the music mute,
And ever widening slowly silence all.

The little rift within the lover’s lute
Or little pitted speck in garner’d fruit
That rotting inward slowly moulders all.

It is not worth the keeping : let it go :
But shall it ? answer, darling, answer, no.
And trust me not at all or all in all.²

  • 1
    Excellent find. The omission by the publisher of the very term that Orwell calls out in his essay is egregious and inexplicable. The publisher of the 1981 edition I linked to (on the OP's behalf) is "Harcourt, Inc," one incarnation of the company known at other times as Harcourt Brace & Howe, Harcourt Brace & World, and Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. The somewhat old-fashioned-looking font that the book uses suggests that this was a reprint of an earlier edition, not a reset edition. In any case, a curious error—and one that your answer seems to resolve definitively. – Sven Yargs Jul 14 '16 at 17:43

Today rift is not an especially obscure word in its original geological sense of "fissure, crevasse, or fault"—but perhaps we owe some of our familiarity with the term in that sense to the significance of the Great Rift Valley in eastern Africa as a source of early hominid fossils. Certainly in 1946, when Orwell wrote "Politics and the English Language," the Great Rift Valley was far less well known in the West than it is today. So perhaps Orwell was speaking to a readership that was acquainted with rift only in its metaphorical sense of personal, political, or social rupture or sudden estrangement.

On the other hand, it's possible that Orwell was alluding to some worn-out metaphor that included the word rift. Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Clichés (1978) reports one possible candidate, drawn from the poetical works of Alfred Tennyson:

rift within the lute, a. A hint of quarrels or trouble to come; a mark or sign of incompatibility: from ca. 1880. An adaptation of Tennyson's "It is the little rift within the lute, / That by and by will ... slowly silence all'. 'Merlin and Vivien' (1869), lines 388–90, in Idylls of the King.

Although I don't recall previously having seen this metaphor used by a writer, a Google Books search finds numerous matches for it (including some within the past decade), not counting direct quotations from Tennyson's verse. So perhaps Orwell was referring obliquely to this cliché (or dying metaphor), and then asking whether anyone who used it knew what the rift within the lute might literally be.

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