The champion of the common man, G.K. Chesterton. has it in one of his scintillating essays that “All slang is metaphor and all metaphor is poetry.” This defence of the common man and his daily conversation in a condensed form of the syllogism, which Chesterton liked so much to employ. It is misleading because it is a half-truth ; and a half-truth is frequently worse than a lie.
It is perhaps unfair to find fault in so celebrated an author and critic as Chesterton now long since departed. But purely for the sake of argument we may say that the major premise which advocates that all slang is metaphor demands a distinction. The snag reposes in the word “all”. Some slang is pure and simple balderdash, without an ounce of metaphor about it. It is not necessary at this time of writing to give concrete examples to prove our point. The conclusion, which the gullible common man will swallow whole, is like-wise not always true. For surely, if all metaphor is poetry, what kind of poetry it is. If the metaphors of Nahum Tate and Adelaide Anne Procter are all poetry, then English poetry has little hope of survival. M. Jourdain, that wonderful man, believed that he was talking poetry all his life. He was deeply chagrined to find that he had been talking just plain prose for over half a century. All metaphor is not poetry any more than all conversation is all literature. It has been said that even Homer nods ; and in this instance, the redoubtable Chesterton has been found nodding. He has won the syllogism and lost the conclusion.
The conversation of everyday life is oftener than not unsuitable for written dialogue on a number of counts. Actually, everyday speech is a hotch-potch of good and bad dialogue. Not infrequently it is too diffuse and rambling even if metaphorical. It does not follow a logical sequence and hardly ever assists the action of conversation. It is stale and dull, and is for the most part matter-of-fact. The talk one hears in trains, buses and on the street is mostly centred upon the age-old theme of finance or trivial domestic problems which are only of interest to the speakers.
Another reason for this slipshod element in conversation is that in everyday speech men are off their guard. They take it easy because they know that it is not going to be reported in the papers ; that it will not be imprisoned in print. Further-more they take one another for granted. This accounts for much of the carelessness of daily speech : its lack of logic and good grammar. Actually, if men realized that there are no ordinary people ; that they never really talk to mere mortals, they would conduct themselves with some awe and circumspection in their dealings with one another. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are moral, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke and talk with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit-immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.
But that is perhaps asking the common man for too much. He cannot digest this. Hence the contention that everyday speech can have no place in written dialogue.