Thursday, September 28, 2006

The elephant is dead: official

The elephant in the room, that is. Remember how fresh and clever it sounded, the first time you heard it? So fresh and clever, in fact, that it probably took you half a second or so to make any sense of it . . . ah yes, the big and important thing that, for whatever reason, nobody can bring themselves to mention, despite its glaringly obvious and unignorable relevance to the matter in hand.

It doesn't sound quite so good any more, does it? For the simple reason that, over the last year or two, we've all heard it several thousand times.

Of course, that doesn't mean that this phrase no long conveys the meaning above. On the contrary, it works better than ever in that respect: use it and everyone will immediately understand what you intend to communicate.

But that's precisely the problem. Because the value of the elephant in the room was all in that half second's hesitation; the momentary interval when your brain was engaged in scanning that unfamiliar combination of five words, searching for meaning - before successfully supplying it.

Much of the time when we write, we want to convey our meaning as quickly and easily as possible. But not when we're aiming to add verbal colour. Then, we actually need to baffle the reader - albeit very briefly - in order to provide them with a moment of slightly delayed gratification.

Over-familiarity kills that possibiliy, as dead as - well anything but a dodo.