Crediting inventiveness

A letter in the NYT Book Review on the 5th (from K. Margaret Schwarz of Hillsborough NJ):

Erica Wagner’s review of Jonathan Galassi’s “Muse” (June 21) praises Galassi’s cleverness in referring to Amazon as “Medusa.” But Alison Bechdel did so years ago in “Dykes to Watch Out For.”

Apparently Galassi’s metaphorical reference wasn’t actually clever, because he wasn’t the first person to use it; presumably, he should have searched for the metaphor before he used it in his book and then should have given Bechdel credit for it. (And, following that reasoning, Wagner should have done such a search herself and either cited Bechdel’s precedent or not mentioned the figure at all.)

This strikes me as loony.

There are situations where the precedent for wording is legally significant: in brand names and potential copyright situations, in particular. But ordinarily, you should realize that wordings that do not merely tap conventional formulations but instead exhibit some originality can occur to many people independently, so that historical precedence in the matter counts for little, unless you’re a tracker of these things by profession or for intellectual curiosity. In any case, the first user doesn’t own the expression.

This is true for figures of speech, lexical innovations (like verbings, nounings, portmanteaus), playful uses (like inventive derivational morphology, puns, playful variations on formulaic expressions), and much else.

So Galassi’s metaphor was in fact clever, and Wagner was justified in calling it clever.

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