Burn Your Bridges Down

Learned Vol. 2, Issue 14

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Concrete Blonde's 1994 B-sides record, Still in Hollywood, is a treasure trove of fantastic performances and deep cuts by a band still in its prime. Included among them, there - track 4, side A, is a cover by Johnette Napolitano (lead singer and main songwriter of Concrete Blonde) and Dream Syndicate's Steve Wynn.

The Ship Song is a slow growl of a ballad, the singer / narrator exhorting a lover to leave everything else behind and to come to their side. Sung right, it's haunting and evocative of maybes and might-have-beens. Sung wrong, it's a paean to jealousy and possessiveness in a relationship. Johnette sings it right.

Written and recorded by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds for their 1990 album, The Good Son, the song revolves around an image presented by the chorus (and the first lines of the song): Come sail your ships around me, and burn your bridges down.

Why and what, exactly, Nick Cage means by ships in the first line is open to interpretation, but the second line is pretty clear: burn your bridges - sever your relationships with others and be with me.

Burn your bridges is an old, old idiom, going all the way back in one form or another to Roman times when generals would, literally, burn the bridges after their armies had crossed them to prevent desertion and retreat. If you can't go back, the thinking goes, then you'll do everything you can to go forward. Over time, this literal burning has taken the metaphorical meaning of destroying a relationship, often in a dramatic and permanent fashion, which is, obviously, how Cage means it in his lyrics.

It's one of my favorite idioms, but, in the way of all good things, it’s become a bit cliche. Fortunately, not all cliches stay boring.

We'll Burn That Bridge When We Get There

Take two idioms, cross them up, and send them out into the world and what do you get? A malaphor:

An error in which two similar figures of speech are merged, producing an often nonsensical result.

In this case, we're taking our idiom du jour and blending it with "let's cross that bridge when we get there," to end up with a new idiom - one that, if we're being honest, makes very little sense on its face but that seems to add up to more than the sum of its parts.

What I mean is, it makes no sense, even from an idiomatic perspective, because, well, why would you do that? Burning the bridge behind you is one thing, but burning it before you've crossed, or, worse yet, while you're still crossing is a terrible idea.

But. Doesn't it sound good? It has an almost Pyrrhic quality to it or maybe just a Sisyphean one. Either way, it presents a resigned, stoic outlook that implies that you know that the effort is futile, but you have to make it anyway. Which is more or less my default feeling on getting out of bed in the morning.

Most malaphors are unintentional. Like malapropisms (which, combined with metaphors gives us the portmanteau of malaphor) they are a byproduct of how our brains thought and speech centers do not always manage to stay in synch with each other. Once out in the world though, some malaphors acquire a new meaning, something that, as I said above, makes it more than the sum of its parts.

May the Bridges I Burn Light the Way

Idioms survive becoming cliche by being adapted into something else. Sometimes, it's by becoming part of a larger work, like lyrics, or by being combined into something new, like a malaphor, but sometimes it's by being incorporated, ourbourous-like, into its own response.

(Turns out it’s a print by artist Mike Monteiro.)

I came across this image years ago. I didn't know it at the time - proper citation has not always been the internet's first priority - but it comes from Beverly Hills 90210. Luke Perry's Dylan McKay tosses this line off during a staged intervention regarding his alcoholism. None of which makes it any less of a cool line - I mean, as images go, that's pretty potent. All those burning bridges lighting the path forward to the next relationship? Whew.

And also an example of an idiom staying relevant by becoming its own comeback. After all, this is a response to someone else's comment. Whether that comment actually referenced burning a bridge doesn't matter; what matters is that everyone understands this line to be a rejection of "don't burn your bridges." And so the cycle becomes literal meaning to idiom to cliche to comeback. We should all be so lucky.

Burn Your Bridges


Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins:

Burning the boats or bridges that a force used to reach a particular position would mean that they had destroyed any means of escape or retreat: they had no choice but to fight on.

Collins Cobuild Idioms Dictionary:

If you burn your bridges, you do something which forces you to continue with a particular course of action, and makes it impossible for you to return to an earlier situation.

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Notable Events of the Year 1990:

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Malformed Vocabulary

As I noted above, malaphor is a portmanteau of malaprop and metaphor. Going a little beyond that, or maybe coming before that, is that malaphor works, in part, because it retains the prefix mal, or, bad. Here are more bad words:

Next time: The game’s afoot. That’s it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.