Thursday, 1 October 2009

A different kettle of fish

There are times when you switch on the radio and you are not sure if you are listening to the news or a cookery programme. Recent reports about police handling of public demonstrations make frequent use of the word ‘kettling’. Sadly, that this has nothing to do with having a nice cup of tea, but refers instead to the practice of containing protesters within a fixed area for a prolonged period.

The image works by viewing the energy of a seething mass of people as being analogous to the boiling water in a kettle. If the restricted area is maintained, the energy of the crowd will eventually be dissipated, and the protesters will then be allowed to disperse.

It may seem a surprising at first that a form of crowd control is named after a kitchen utensil. Then again, we might consider that every household has a kitchen, and so the things found in a kitchen are familiar, and we often explain new or unusual phenomena by comparing them to familiar objects.

It is certainly not the first time that a kitchen object has been called upon to give a name for something that has nothing to with cooking. The word stovepipe, for example, was borrowed to describe a tall silk hat of the kind favoured by Abraham Lincoln, while a panhandle is a thin strip of territory stretching out from the main body like the handle of a pan – as is found in the states of Oklahoma and Florida. Meanwhile, in the jargon of town planners the word pepperpotting has been coined to refer to the practice of sprinkling social housing among areas of private housing, so that lower earners are not herded together in large estates. Viewed in the light of these usages, the imagery of kettling is easier to understand.

Of course, some items of kitchenware have yet to acquire any metaphorical senses. The Chambers Dictionary does not yet record any interesting secondary uses of the words toaster or microwave oven – but perhaps there is still time.

Ian Brookes

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1 comment:

Harry Campbell said...

I always thought a kettle of fish was just a surreal image until I learned about fish kettles. The kettle analogy in policing is just as puzzling. I would imagine the effect is more like a pressure cooker. If you go on one of these heavily policed demonstrations today, you certainly stand a good chance of being put through the wringer.

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