When Pet Peeves Attack

I understand that people have certain pet peeves, and that this often comes out when they edit. The problem is that some pet peeves make otherwise adept users of the English language sound like they’re not native English speakers, or even native Indo-European speakers. It’s very common to find people who dislike certain metaphorical or idiomatic expressions, and thus are determined to interpret them literally — as if they were non-native speakers — when in fact they understand the expression perfectly well, and are simply determined to resist its fossilized wit.

For example, the very common expression “His eyes darted around the room,” or “his eyes darted about,” which is really the same thing in small.

Now, it’s true that “darted” usually means “to move quickly, like a spear or dart”. But that’s the 16th century meaning. The 14th century meaning, which gives the verb its hidden force, is “to stab and pierce with a spear/dart/arbalest bolt.”

Now, as everyone medieval knows, your eyes are armed with arrows and other missile weapons, like darts. You have sharp eyes, keen sight. If someone is looking at you, your pupils — which, by common metonymy, are your eyes — can dart side to side. But if you are looking at something, you feel your eyes dart around the room; your piercing gaze is stabbing into various separate things in turn and thus bringing you visual information. (And making people fall in love with you, if you’re young and beautiful; your eyes dart their eyes.)

The beautiful and clever thing about “his eyes darted around the room” is that it brings together both meanings of “dart”: the inner feeling of eye movement and the outer looking-upon of eye movement. You don’t know whether it’s going to be REM or alertness or shiftiness until you hit the modifiers, which is exciting and interesting. When you find out, it preserves a feeling of action when the character’s body is otherwise still.

Of course, I’ve noticed that many editors don’t like uncertainty in such matters, and would rather have the sort of sentences where you can guess the ending from the first few words. But nobody worries about “run” having twenty or thirty different meanings, so why worry about “dart” having two? It’s a puzzlement.

But I will also bring in authority on my side; because if it’s good enough for Shakespeare and Spenser, it’s hardly a newcomer expression.

“Now show the wound mine eye hath made in thee.
Scratch thee but with a pin, and there remains
Some scar of it; lean but upon a rush,
The cicatrice and capable impressure
Thy palm some moment keeps. But now mine eyes,
Which I have darted at thee, hurt thee not.”
— Shakespeare, As You Like It.

“In her two eyes, two living lamps did flame,
Kindled above, at the heavenly light,
And darting fiery beams out of the same
So passing pearceant, and so wondrous bright,
That quite bereaved the rash beholders of their sight.”
— Spenser

Now, it’s sad that I have to explain this beautiful frozen poem, but I have to do something to fight all that strange new clunky use of “gaze” as a substitute for “eyes” in common expressions. That’s a pet peeve for me. (Especially since poor “gaze” has been so mistreated by literary theorists in recent years.) In the last year or so, this has been a fad. It has stopped me dead and made me gag, in some writers I respect. So when I came across one of the carriers of the fad virus, someone who is otherwise a really good writer, I had to link and try persuasion. (And the rest of her blog is very helpful and useful, so do take a look at it.)

And no, sf and fantasy editors can’t drive out every idiomatic expression by whining about how it could be literal in an sf setting. It would be a Sisyphean task. There aren’t any English words or expressions in existence that don’t contain buried figurative language, except possibly “a” and “the.” Trying to eliminate all figurative speech is where madness lies. As long as all your latent metaphors aren’t jumping out of hiding and blocking the narrative road, you’re good.

(Although it makes you sound more literary to pick a bunch of latent metaphors that are all on the same topic, if anyone notices; and a lot of rhetoric is the conscious use of half-noticed imagery and motifs to manipulate listeners.)

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