Most of us are probably not aware that we use poetic language as a matter of course. Similes, metaphors, images, all that stuff is what playwrights and literary types come up with to convey and illuminate meaning and emotion. Nothing to do with the way ordinary people talk, right?
But our everyday conversations and interactions are studded with lively phrases and colourful metaphors, many of which we repeat so often and so automatically that we don’t realise we are using figurative language.
The expressions we use shape the way we feel, how we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived. You’ll be familiar with the advice to use words and phrases to make us feel better in ourselves and improve our mental wellbeing.
Many of us recite self-affirming phrases and calming and uplifting mantras to induce serenity and reduce stress. That’s fine — but when you are not in this kind of consciouly-entered meditative state, the language you use day to day could be continually undermining all your efforts to achieve calmness.
Some words have harsh tones and jagged edges. Far from being soothing and heartening, they become aggressive and unsettling when used in the wrong context.
Expressions which have a particular resonance in one setting may have an entirely different effect when transposed to another situation. The language of competitive sport has a different impact when used in personal and domestic contexts. The terminology of the workplace may not happily translate to home or social life.
What expressions do you use when you want to express a sense of achievement, or admiration, for what someone else has achieved? It’s really common to hear:
- I nailed it!
- You totally nailed it!
When we say we ‘nailed’ something, we are expressing satisfaction at having comprehensively mastered a challenge, which is a positive feeling. But ‘nail’ is a harsh word. Most of the idiomatic expressions based on ‘nail’ are pretty rough. We say someone is ‘as hard as nails’. Something which contributes to destruction or failure is ‘a nail in the coffin’. Something can be ‘as dead as a doornail’. A painful or uncomfortable situation is ‘a bed of nails’.
Other frequently heard expressions of triumph and success are:
- I smashed it!
- You’ll smash it!
Now, ‘smashing’ as an adjective meaning great or wonderful has been around since early last century. It’s always been rather a nice word, expressing a kind of bubbly naivety. It had a moment or two in the 1960s. You could have a Smashing Time — check out the 1967 film of the same name — in Swinging London. Cathy McGowan, famed presenter of the seminal TV programme Ready Steady Go called everything smashing, when it wasn’t fab, that is.
And in the following decade, the brand of instant mashed potato called Smash was launched with an advert showing Martian robots mocking consumers who made mashed potato the old-fashioned way, with real potatoes. Those robots sure knew how to smash a potato.
But the way the expression is currently is used doesn’t suggest fun or light-heartedness, even though its familiarity might be thought to have lessened its effect.
‘Smashing it’ is used to convey anything that is achieved, any challenge that is met, regardless of context or level of difficulty. Often it means little more than doing something quite well, or doing what we set out to do. The intensity of the word, which after all means to shatter something violently, is often out of all proportion to what it relates to.
‘Nailing’ and ‘smashing’ our way through life creates an atmosphere of winning, beating, subduing, destroying. You will succeed if you apply enough force, if you bang that hammer down on the nail, hurl that plate against the wall. Everything is a competition which it is our duty to win. And if we don’t succeed, it’s because we didn’t hit the nail hard enough, didn’t batter the plate with enough power.
Phrases can create stress
Without our realising it, when we use certain phrases we may be applying pressure and creating stress when that’s the last thing we want to do. Telling a child or a grown-up child that they will smash an exam or an interview or assessment suggests that they should have a particular approach to the challenge, which may not be appropriate. Thinking creatively, writing discursively, discussing and hypothesising, collaborating and compromising are not best encouraged by directives to nail it or smash it.
Violent words aren’t conducive to a calm state of mind or to thoughtful communication. You could experiment for a time and see how you feel and how your personal interactions are affected if you deliberately avoid using forceful language.
Instead of ‘You’ll nail it’, try something like, ‘Good luck. You’ll be fine.’
Instead of ‘I smashed it!’ try something like, ‘I did it!’ or ‘That went well!’
Understate of play
Or how about a touch of classic British understatement? Films and television programmes from the early years of the last century show people talking in ways which we find amusing or incomprehensible. Characters communicate strong emotion with qualified and understated expressions, which we can mistakenly assume indicates lack of feeling and engagement.
- Phrases include:
- ‘We had a spot of bother’
- ‘It was quite a success’
- ‘He’s not a bad chap’
Let bygones be your friend
We may imagine these words spoken in cut-glass accents by immaculately and formally dressed characters, representative of a bygone era. This way of speaking is outmoded and has no place in modern society in which strong and direct declarations of emotion hold sway, we think.
Hmm. There might be a touch of ‘baby and bathwater’ with this assessment, but in any case, you may find it helpful to frame some of your responses in an understated fashion. If you don’t want to do this when talking with other people, try it in your own head. It might just be the linguistic equivalent of a soothing bath. (Be aware that you’re not minimising or denying feelings, but just expressing them in a different way.)
Of course the evolution and development of language is something to be encouraged and celebrated. Changing usages, different forms of slang, cultural crossovers, newly coined words enhance the way we communicate and make language vibrant and dynamic. It’s good to be aware of the effects that constant use of some expressions can have on our psyche and the way we view the world.
When Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin by chance through seeing that mould was growing on a Petri dish of bacteria, his non-triumphant comment was, ‘One sometimes finds what one is not looking for.’
Smashed it, Sir Alexander!