A clear portrayal of something being unequal to the task, Thoreau uses this maritime metaphor to describe words which strike him as inauthentic, being only half justified or improved by some modifier (‘church’ made true by calling it ‘true church’ – he doesn’t entirely approve of the church as an institution).

‘There are many words which are genuine and indigenous and have their root in our natures, not made by scholars, and as well understood by the illiterate as others.  There are also a great many words which are spurious and artificial, and can only be used in a bad sense, since the thing they signify is not fair and substantial, – such as the church, the judiciary, to impeach, etc., etc.   They who use them do not stand on solid ground.  It is in vain to try to preserve them by attaching other words to them as the true church, etc.  It is like towing a sinking ship with a canoe.’  1 January 1858

 

Source: Henry David Thoreau, The Journal 1837-1861, Damion Searls (ed.), preface by John R. Stilgoe (New York: New York Review Books, 2009), p. 483

Photo credit: Noah Rosenfield at unsplash

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