What examples of dying metaphors, pretentious diction, and meaningless words can be found in "Letter from Birmingham Jail"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In his essay "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell contends that language should be an instrument for expressing and not for concealing thought.  Certain "mental vices" are mentioned by Orwell as conducive to such cloaking of clear thought.  These are

  1. dying metaphors, unstated comparisons that are used as a mere short-cut to creating fresh phrases.
  2. operators or verbal false limbs, which Orwell defines as phrases that "pad" sentences with extra syllables, providing an appearance of symmetry and phrases used in place of simple verbs or single nouns.  
  3. pretentious diction, which are words used to "dress-up" a simple statement, giving the appearance of erudition or scientific impartiality instead of the actual biased judgment.
  4. meaningless words, or words that do not "point to any discoverable object."  Orwell cites words such as romantic, values, democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice as such words since they have been used and misused by so many.  Meaningless words are those that have variable meanings, thus giving them no concrete meaning.  They are also read-made phrases that have become trite.

It can be argued that the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from the Birmingham City Jail" contains some of the "mental vices" that Orwell explicates.  Here are a few examples:

1.dying metaphors  "solid rock" in paragraph 25, "creative outlet" in paragraph 29, "shattered dreams" in paragraph 34, "clarion call" in paragraph 36.

2. operators or verbal false limbs - In paragraph 6 there is the phrase "gainsaying the fact" that is used instead of a simple verb. Another example is "sanctimonious trivialities" in paragraph 35.

3. pretentious diction comes in a phrase such as "inescapable network of mutuality" in paragraph 4; also in the phrase "unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal" there is pretentious diction.

4. meaningless words - King repeats the word self-purification in paragraphs 6 and 8 without any clear meaning to this word. The use of the word tension in the phrase "violent tension" does not have a succinct meaning, either.  King's use of the word freedom also has an ambiguous meaning at times; he would do better to use a more specific word or phrase in its place as, for example, in his phrase of paragraph 40:  "the struggle for freedom."





jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A "dying metaphor" is an example of figurative language that has lost its meaning because of overuse. Though King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" is a very affecting and important piece of writing, it features some dying (also known as "dead") metaphors, such as "open the door to negotiation." This is a trite way of saying to negotiate. Other dying metaphors include "the cup of endurance runs over" and "the abyss of despair." Because one has heard these statements so often, they are not as striking or effective as fresher metaphors would be.

"Pretentious words" are words meant to make a statement sound more elaborate or eloquent than it really is but that are not really needed. Examples in this letter include, "Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states." This is a very elaborate way of saying that he is aware that all the country is connected. Another example is "There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community." This means that there can be no denying that there is a great deal of injustice in Birmingham. The word "gainsaying" is pretentious.

Finally, there are also meaningless words (words that are not needed), such as "Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?" "The ordeal of" is not needed in this sentence, as it could simply read, "Are you able to endure jail?" The following passage also features meaningless words:

"Why didn't you give the new city administration time to act?" The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act.

The words "to this query" are not needed in this passage, as it could be understood clearly without them. 

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Letter from Birmingham City Jail

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