Monday, December 07, 2009

On spilling ink

Ever noticed how often "ink" gets "spilt" in academic discussions? I just noticed another example, in Ben Witherington III's BAR article on Luke's Nativity, and began to wonder whether we will still be talking about spilling ink in fifty or a hundred year's time. Will it be one of those expressions that will live on long after we have stopped using ink? Some of us, of course, still enjoy the use of a nice fountain pen, including digital pioneers like AKMA. But you can bet your life that they do not submit manuscripts to publishers in handwriting written with a fountain pen. If any ink got spilt, it was in jotting down notes and not in preparing the manuscript.

It might be that the image is thought to relate to publishers' ink, the ink of the printing press. But is that ink actually ever spilt? The "spilling" of "ink" evokes the image of the fountain pen, and a pot of Quink, but perhaps that is just me.

I must admit that it is not an image I like to use. It's a scholarly cliché that's used to express frustration at the extent of the literature on a topic that one feels obliged to deal with but wishes one did not. "Much ink has been spilt on . . ." means something like: "More has been written on this topic than I refuse to read".

Still, I wonder what will have replaced it in a century. "Many megabites have been wasted on . . . "? "Many keyboards have been worn out by . . ."? "Many a neural interface has malfunctioned on . . ."?


JohnO said...

As someone who already spends a software career in front of a computer, the technical term is "mashing on the keyboard":

Unknown said...

I always thought it was a modification of the expression which involves blood being "spilt." (ie "much blood was spilt in defense of freedom"). Could it be an allusion to a "battle" fought where no blood is spilt (hopefully!) but where the relevant liquid involved is ink? Fun post!

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, John -- great. You may be right, Paul -- good thought.

Mark Goodacre said...

PS: what a funny / horrid video!

steph said...

Ha - my brother sent me that video a while back ... horrid!!! ;-)

Mark - you take things too literally! It will become a beautiful quaint expression, still meaning time wasted, although nobody will remember what ink was.

Mark Goodacre said...

Perhaps so, Steph! I rather like the metaphor of spilled ink, though I'm not too keen on the cliche of its use in scholarly literature. Yes, lots of antiquated expressions stick around, e.g. "come a cropper" and now few know where it came from. I like the idea that our great grandchildren will be talking about spilt ink without any idea where it comes from.

Colin Toffelmire said...

Hehe, I used to work in an office with an instant messenger system, and we frequently used that video to express our frustration with the engineers we worked with.

As for the metaphor, this seems less like a dead or dying metaphor, and more like a metaphorical adjustment. The old metaphor used a real everyday activity (writing with a fountain pen) to refer to wasted time. The new metaphor functions in a similar way, but is part of a broader metaphorical system where LITERARY PRODUCTION (or somesuch) is WRITING, even though young scholars like me haven't actually written with pen and paper since grade school.

SFH said...

I found your blog after searching online for the origin of this wonderful expression in English, and thought that you might like to know that, whenever it first originated in English, it appears to have been a translation from Hebrew. I've already found it twice in Midrash Tanchuma (between the 5th and 10th century, acc. to Strack and Stemberger), once in Tzav §10 and again in Shoftim §18. The relevant part of the first of those two sources is as follows:

אמר רבן שמעון בן גמליאל ראה כמה דיו משתפך וכמה קולמוסין משתברין... ללמד דבר שלא היה בתורה

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says, "See how much ink has been spilled, how many quills have been broken... to teach something not actually found in the Torah."