If you’ve been to the UK in the last few years, you won’t have been able to avoid the latest craze sweeping the nation. It’s a craze which seems to manifest itself everywhere: in shop windows, on T-shirts, in adverts – even in language blogs. And it’s one that has at its heart one very simple phrase.
On the eve of World War II, the UK Government displayed posters across the country carrying the very simple plea to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. The message – simply stated and boldly written – was clear: to get through the war, the nation couldn’t afford to panic.
After the war was over, the poster had surely had its day. But then, in 2001, some enterprising soul came up with the idea of printing new copies of it for sale. The rest, as they say, is history.
Since then, the poster has appeared everywhere from office walls to football changing rooms. In particular, it has spawned all manner of creative parodies from ‘keep calm and have a cup-cake’ to the royal wedding inspired ‘keep calm and marry Kate’. Novel versions have appeared all over the place, from greeting cards to shopping bags. There is now even a website where you can generate your own. In fact, the country has been inundated with so many examples that some commentators have begun to wonder whether it’s time to stop ‘keeping calm’, and just stop.
So, what’s behind the craze for ‘keeping calm’ and ‘carrying on’? Why has it been so popular?
For many people in the UK the phrase will surely carry a very warm feeling of ‘Britishness’ – from the wartime reference itself, even down to the most Anglo-Saxon of linguistic features at the end: the phrasal verb. But, I would argue that the most important factor in the success of the ‘Keep Calm’ craze is in, in fact, the wealth of creative potential that the phrase itself provides. Because ‘keep calm and carry on’ is the perfect example to illustrate one of the most important mechanisms in linguistic creativity: creative linguistic variation.
Let me explain.
When it comes to language, creativity is not bound only to poetry and fine prose. Researchers like Ronald Carter at University of Nottingham have done much work to point out that linguistic creativity (the ‘art of common talk’, as he calls it) is pervasive in everyday life (Carter and McCarthy, 2011). As such, linguistic creativity can come in all manner of forms, including the use of figurative language (metaphors, similes and so on), puns and other word-play, jokes, careful placement of cultural references, general deviations from appropriateness, and even style-switching.
But perhaps one of the most common of all these forms of creativity is what Carter calls ‘departures from expected idiomatic formulations’. In essence, this ‘creative linguistic variation’ (or CLV for short) means taking a well worn phrase like ‘keep calm and carry on’ (or any other cliché, idiom or figure of speech), and playing with it, creatively. Tony Veale, computational linguist at University College Dublin, has dedicated an entire book to this creative process (Veale, 2012). In his words (p. 26), creative linguistic variation refers to:
‘…expressions that are playful in their use of words, that stretch words or familiar phrases to fit novel (but apt) meanings, and which can be seen as pleasurable variations of a familiar convention, an entrenched stereotype, or an existing turn of phrase.’
In short, CLV means imitating and innovating, at the same time. And it’s probably something you do more often than you think.
In one real-life example from Carter’s research, two lifeguards are chatting as they sit behind a cash-desk taking money from swimmers (Carter and McCarthy, 2011). One of them recounts to the other:
‘I was in, reading FHM on the sun-lounger, happy as hell.’
The metaphor employed in this sentence, ‘happy as hell’, is a good example of CLV. In itself, ‘happy as hell’ actually stretches the definition of metaphor since there are no obvious attributes of ‘hell’ (think ‘hot’, ‘firey’, ‘miserable’) that match the adjective ‘happy’. Instead of being built up from its component parts, the expression is therefore better explained as a variation on older, more fitting metaphors: ‘hot as hell’, perhaps, or ‘brutal as hell’.
If you do a web search (using a Google-based tool like WebCorp) for examples of ‘_ as hell’ you get the following among the top 60 hits:
‘mad as hell’ (6 hits)
‘creepy as hell’ (5)
‘cold as hell’ (3)
‘hot as hell’ (2)
‘hard as hell’ (2)
‘sexy as hell’ (2)
‘old as hell’ (2)
‘brutal as hell’ (2)
‘crazy as hell’ (2)
‘confusing as hell’ (1)
‘ugly as hell’ (1)
‘Hollywood as hell’ (1)
Of course, some of these are more novel than others, and some are more pleasing (my favourite is ‘Hollywood as hell’), but all are good examples of CLV in action.
A phrase like ‘keep calm and carry on’ gives rise to even more creative possibilities. If you do the same search, this time for expressions of the form ‘keep calm and _ on’, you get the following among the top 60 hits:
‘keep calm and carry on’ (5)
‘keep calm and teach on’ (3)
‘keep calm and invest on’ (3)
‘keep calm and fight on’ (3)
‘keep calm and dream on’ (2)
‘keep calm and marry on’ (2)
‘keep calm and soldier on’ (2)
‘keep calm and Karey on’ (2)
‘keep calm and tweet on’ (2)
‘keep calm and Carrie on’ (1)
‘keep calm and conform on’ (1)
Some of the variations deviate little in terms of meaning (‘soldier on’); some echo the wartime routes of the original (‘fight on’); some add a subtle subversive spin (‘conform on’); and, some pun directly on the verb being replaced – at the same time creating new verbs from proper nouns (‘Carrie’ and ‘Karey’). But, all are good examples of creative linguistic variation.
You can do the same search for ‘keep _ and carry on’, now looking for instances of the adjective ‘calm’ being replaced. This time, you will find examples of CLV including ‘keep clean and carry on’ (2) and ‘keep cool and carry on’ (2). And, finally, if you look for more wholesale creative variations, searching for instances of ‘keep calm and _’, you will hit examples including:
‘keep calm and visit our shop’ (2)
‘keep calm and make tea’ (1)
‘keep calm and visit New York’ (1)
And, my personal favourite:
‘keep calm and stop making keep calm posters’ (1)
Of course, as Veale points out in his book, novelty is not enough when it comes to making such variations. There is very obviously an art to creating pleasing expressions like ‘keep calm and stop making keep calm posters’. As Veale says:
‘A truly creative variation is a delicate balance of the novel and the familiar, of the appropriate and the inappropriate. If words seem to be in the wrong place, then they are in the wrong place at the right time. A creative variation is not just any novel combination of familiar elements, but a deliberate departure from a convention that is given a distinctive and knowing twist.’
In his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, George Orwell famously expresses his hatred of ‘dead metaphors’. He even pleads with authors to avoid them, even if they are not yet dead, but only just going stale (Orwell, 1946). One of the golden rules for writing, he says, is:
‘Never use a metaphor, simile or figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.’
His point was a valid one: that, in political debate, the metaphors people use can influence, for better or for worse, the way in which we view the world. But what Orwell missed was that, when it comes to the everyday linguistic creativity, dead metaphors – as much as any well worn turn of phrase – are actually a fantastic source of novelty.
So next time you feel your prose is missing something, just remember the productive art of creative linguistic variation. In other words: keep calm, and jazz it up.
Carter, R. and Mccarthy, M. (2011). Talking, Creating. In Li Wei (ed.) The Routledge Applied Linguistics Reader (pp. 202-227). Oxon: Routledge.
Orwell, G. (1946) Politics and the English Language. Horizon, 13, 252-265.
Veale, T. (2012) Exploding the Creativity Myth: The Computational Foundations of Linguistic Creativity. London: Bloomsbury.