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Turning the clocks back

October 25, 2013

 ‘You can’t turn the clocks back,’ people often say, meaning that you can’t return to an earlier state of affairs. Well, but obviously you can turn the clocks back – we’re doing it this weekend, as we do every year. The literal meaning of the expression is clearly wrong; and isn’t the metaphorical meaning wrong too, and in just the same way? Does it mean that you can’t, for instance, repeal a law? But you can of course repeal laws. (Whether it’s a good idea to do so is, of course, a different question.)

If a common saying is wrong in its literal sense, it may well be wrong in its metaphorical sense too. People say ‘There’s no smoke without fire.’ But there is. What about dry ice? And the metaphorical meaning – which seems to amount to the claim ‘All rumours are true’ – seems equally unfounded to me.

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One Comment
  1. I hate “no smoke without fire”! for both of the reasons you’ve cited! But I’ve read somewhere, which I now can’t find, that the proverb originally went (in Latin) “there’s no fire without smoke” which makes enormously more sense, literally and metaphorically.

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