the proof should be in the pudding only if it’s 150 or so

A phrase that’s always bugged me, and is a perfect illustration of the way clichéd phrases function by sanding down the meanings of their component words: “under lock and key.”

That makes no sense. Yes, if you want to keep something safe and secure, putting it “under lock” is a good idea…but if you include the key, the lock might as well not be there. It’s rather curious to imagine how the phrase originated: “under lock” just didn’t seem good enough? We needed a couple of extra syllables? A “key” does not aid security; it aids access to whatever is hidden or protected by the lock.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “the proof should be in the pudding only if it’s 150 or so

  1. Aaron

    I’m not sure that type of use of ‘under’ has as narrow a sense as you’re asking it to. We can say “Under capitalism, smaller groups will often share freely among themselves.” and it makes sense, even though capitalism is not (metaphorically) SITTING RIGHT THERE in the situations described.

    In fact, the other similar ‘under’s I can think of are *all* systems of control that act pervasively or at a distance (under orders, under surveillance). There’s really no suggestion of adjacency the way there is with non-metaphorical ‘under’. (“I spent hours sitting under my dining room table yesterday.” “Really?” “Yes, I was in the basement rec room, which is below the dining room.” No, not okay.)

    So, yeah, the key is crucial; the key is the difference between people allowed to see the thing and people not allowed to. If a chest is locked and the key is long lost, the people who own it are not “keeping it under lock and key”.

  2. That makes sense…I think it’s the physical objecthood of “lock and key” that threw me; your counterexamples (orders, surveillance) are abstractions deployed in a vaguely metaphoric fashion (“under”). But certainly, that someone has a key is important, in the way you describe.

  3. Aaron: as a total aside, I notice you’re consistent in your use of single vs. double quotation marks, with the single ones being used to designate terms under discussion (words as words): I’ve written about this before, but I still can’t find citation of this usage in any reference guides. Not that it’s not a useful distinction; just curious that people actually use it consistently even though it appears to have no “official” status…

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