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The excerpt below is taken from an article in The Guardian, published in October 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was still in its peak. The author is Richard Horton, a doctor and editor-in-chief of the medical journal The Lancet

There’s an eight-year difference in life expectancy between the north and the south of the UK. […] These differences in life expectancy hold a mirror up to the inequalities across the nation. The lowest 10 expectancies in England skew towards the poorest places in the north-west and north-east of the country: Blackpool, Middlesbrough, Hull, Liverpool, Hartlepool, Rochdale, St Helens, Sunderland, Blackburn and Manchester. And here one finds an interesting and important correlation. Is it a coincidence that the worst life expectancies in England track the upsurge in coronavirus? I don’t think so.

A website called Editorial Words quoted the excerpt (in bold) as an example of usage for the phrase hold a mirror to. But two high-rep users–herein called @1st and @2nd–argued that the the metaphor was used poorly and incorrectly.

The first user stated that the phrase “holding up a mirror“ was misplaced and a verb should have been used instead.
[emphasis in bold mine]

It's a terrible piece of writing, with an inapt metaphor. The example usage which looks at the differences in life expectancy isn't "holding a mirror up to" anything. These differences in life expectancy expose the inequalities across the nation @1st

My attention was drawn to the example sentence, which was cited as an example of usage, @1st claimed the phrase was about self-reflection and not about differences.

@Mari-Lou the example might be about "reflecting on differences" but "holding a mirror up" is about self-reflection. @1st

A second user posted the following analysis
[emphasis in bold mine]

…the example sentence is an incorrect usage because the object of the final "to" must be a person or group of people, not the issue itself. @2nd

I find the original metaphor holding a mirror up to the inequalities of the nation reasonable, even if the object of “to” is not a person or a group of people but an abstract noun phrase.

I also believe neither @1st nor @2nd had read The Guardian article, and so their criticism were based on the embolden sentence. Would knowing the full context have made any difference?

Questions: Is it true that the object of to, in that example, must be a person or a group of people? Is holding a mirror up used only for self-reflection?


Source: The Guardian, Alarming new data shows the UK was the 'sick man' of Europe even before Covid

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  • What's the downvote for? Lack of research and effort?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Sep 10, 2023 at 16:13
  • That's exactly what I was wondering...
    – fev
    Commented Sep 10, 2023 at 16:52
  • The idea that a phrase can only be used one way is a prescriptive approach, and in reality, words and phrases mean whatever they are successfully understood to mean. I think the original phrasing is understandable, even if a little different to some uses. Beyond anything else, if it has to refer to a group of people; well, the nation is a group of people. Commented Sep 11, 2023 at 11:51
  • 2nd meaning to elucidate, to shed light upon. Like ugly mirrors hanging opposite small windows in a large room, they serve a purpose even if no one looks in them. Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 10:15

2 Answers 2

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The Editorial Words defines the phrase as:

meaning “to take a look at oneself objectively to examine or reflect on things (issues) stemming from the reality of reflection; to reveal to someone about the way they look (differently) to the rest of the world (so that they can reflect upon themselves); expose, show up, bring to light (some (unpleasant) aspects to oneself)”.

Then it goes on to provide as an example the sentence you are asking about.

I find holding a mirror up to successful in this context, as it emphasises the fact that whatever the mirror reflects can no longer be ignored, dismissed, we can no longer pretend not to see it, since it is in plain sight.

Surprisingly, this NGram shows that in fact the expression is quite often used with abstract nouns: enter image description here

Here are some examples that might help:

Apostolic Genius (and its composite elements of mDNA) holds a powerful mirror up to our own practices and conceptions of church.
(The Forgotten Ways, Alan Hirsch, 2009)

I am grateful for the intellectual courage to lay such a proposition before us and, as it were, hold the mirror up to our own strong desire to somehow or other get a handle on this country...
(Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Foreign Economic Policy, 1962)

This method also allows us to hold the mirror up to our own critical paradigms. (All's Well, That Ends Well: New Critical Essays, Gary Waller, 2006)

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  • 2
    This page was already linked in the question, by the way.
    – Laurel
    Commented Sep 10, 2023 at 10:20
  • My bad, I seem to have missed it. However, providing the actual quote sheds light on the matter.
    – fev
    Commented Sep 10, 2023 at 10:21
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PhraseFinder says that Shakespeare used the term with different meanings, one of which means 'mirror / echo / imitate':

'Hamlet tells the players to "hold a mirror up to nature" - ie to copy natural behaviour'.

And some of the many natural sounding internet examples using non-sentient prepositional complements, with the sense 'give/s the lowdown on ...' / 'opens [wide] a window on ...':

  • Joan Cornellá's new exhibition “holds a mirror up to the depraved nature of society” [It'sNiceThat]

  • Chatsworth holds a mirror up to the future of design [Sotheby's]

  • Doug Aitken's “Mirage Gstaad” holds a mirror up to the natural world. [Changing Lives]

  • Cambridge Analytica holds a mirror up to the mainstream media [Socialist Appeal]

  • Dickens holds a mirror up to our own times as well as reflecting social conditions 200 years ago [Giles Taylor; Royal Shakespeare Company]

So criticising broadened usages per se is infelicitous. The suggestion that 'expose' is better sidesteps the issue that the term originates from 'expound / explain', which itself would need a sentient agent in the original narrow sense.

That said, one could argue against the use of the metaphor here as being unnecessarily polysemous, with better alternatives. 'Focuses attention on' or 'illustrates graphically' are probably better metaphors to use here. And 'give / open a window upon/into' is a good choice.

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  • Was @2nd correct in asserting the object of to should be a person or a group of people. I don't understand the thinking behind this. What phrase about people should go in place of … inequalities across the nation... What am I missing?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Sep 10, 2023 at 10:12
  • The 'to the natural world' shows that the expression is used with the meaning of 'open a window upon/into' (an area for consideration). There are many internet examples. 'Doug Aitken holds a mirror up to Detroit's history inside a former bank' / 'Sephora holds a mirror up to beauty.' / Commented Sep 10, 2023 at 11:49

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