When we speak of “body language,” we mean the non-verbal signals sent by gesture, facial expression and body movement.
But there’s a different kind of body language. English teems with terms incorporating body parts and functions — many depicting weakness, disability, and shortcomings.
Political correctness advocates protest that much of this usage debases those suffering real disability. But if some day we scrap such expressions as turn a blind eye, blind-sided, blind trust, blind alley or blind as a bat, English will be the poorer.
Each of the above terms refers to the inability to see. Similar references to hearing have also invaded English.
Every mother has turned a deaf ear to Jimmy’s demand for cookies just before supper. And who among us has never heard of a deafening silence or had some plea fall on deaf ears?
Another of the five senses, speech, has also entered everyday vernacular. We say Leona is speechless with surprise or tongue-tied or dumbstruck. Media report that a murder suspect has dummied up. In naval jargon, a dummy run is a trial or practice run — not for real. As well, department store dummies aren’t real people. Neither is a dumb waiter.
Nevertheless, political correctness proponents do have a point. Dumb is often used disparagingly — even as an insult. We speak of a dumb bunny, dumb Dora, dummox (dumb ox).
Paralysis is another example of physical language. Media report: “The economy suffers from creeping paralysis.” We read of a camper who became paralyzed with fear upon encountering a grizzly bear.
Someone not paralyzed might still suffer mobility problems, so lameness also pervades colloquial English. Jean-Luc's teacher might say his excuse for neglecting his homework is lame. A lame-brain is a fool. A lame duck is a defeated politician, especially a U.S. president, forced to remain in office until his successor is sworn in. A lame scene is a boring event.
Ben limps into old age. People offer limp excuses. A limp candidate is inadequate and weak. A plane with engine failure limps in for a landing.
Cripple is also found in everyday speech. So, someone endures a crippling financial loss. A weak leader is crippled by indecision. It's even possible to cripple the imagination. Recent news tells of the crippled economy of Greece and Spain.
The body's primary organ, the heart, has inspired many expressions. If Louisa is heart-broken, her spirits are low. Consequently, Louisa’s heart isn’t in her work and she performs in a half-hearted manner. But, remember, she’s heartsick. Don’t treat her heartlessly.
Instead, urge her to take heart. And give her a hearty pat on the back. That should cheer her heart.
We label cowards, spineless and call irresolute people weak-kneed. If Boris is lily-livered, he’s timid, perhaps even cowardly. Maybe he has also been told he’s a gutless wonder or that he lacks backbone. No wonder he’s spleenful.
English would be incredibly poorer if we ever gutted its vocabulary of all these expressions — this body language. So put your best foot forward and resist pressure to do so.