Over the weekend, I was amused to see the following statement in the Saturday New York Times: “...when in the 17th century Isaac Newton paid homage to his intellectual predecessors, h expressed his humility with an image that was still fresh and evocative. ‘If I have seen further than others,’ he wrote, ‘it was only be standing upon the shoulders of giants.’”
Evocative yes, fresh no. In the appropriately titled On the Shoulders of Giants (1965), the late Robert K. Merton traced the history of this expression from the Middle Ages through early modernity.
The statement appears in an op-ed essay, “Standing on the Shoulders of Clichés,” by Guy Deutscher (NYT, 6/18/05, p.A29 in the national edition--I couldn’t find the link on-line).
Deutscher notes that Hillary Clinton recently used this imagery in a commencement speech. But given the passage of time, the imagery appears in Clinton’s speech as “not much more than a flourish of meaningless rhetoric.” In other words, Clinton used a cliché. (But that’s okay, as Deutscher ultimately argues that “cliché is a necessary state between new imagery and everyday vocabulary.”)
So Senator Clinton is not to blame or praise for anything here--she’s just using ordinary language. We can criticize Sir Isaac Newton, however, for some hackneyed prose. But we must also praise him for helping mid-wife this expression into our everyday language.