Friday, July 23, 2010

The Assault and Battery of Metaphors

Lean in closely. Are you listening?

Metaphors are not toys.

If you don't know how to handle them they can hurt you - or worse: they can make you look silly. Here's proof, from a unwitting author who shall remain nameless (because I don't know her name):

"As far as my writing career goes, this project could be the gravy on the cake."*

Oh, I hope it isn't; I do. But if she writes like that, she could find herself sitting on the bench.

Right next to Barack Obama, who said in 2008:

"Now, Senator McCain suggests that somehow, you know, I'm green behind the ears."

Maybe somebody should look.

Next to him will sit - however unwillingly - Sean Hannity ("That may sound great on paper") and Rush Limbaugh ("...who were going to fight you hook, line and sinker.")

Sometimes the gaffs are so glaring, you wonder - hope - they are intentional. Perhaps, you think, the speaker is making a joke:

It's as American as killing two birds with one apple pie. Gary Swing, Colorado candidate for House of Representatives

So silly, you think. You don't have to be an expert to spot a mess like that.

But be careful! Botched metaphors aren't always obvious. Because so much of our language is figurative, we forget that certain words paint pictures. Which means we'd best pay attention to what they are painting, or we could end up with something truly bizarre:

Over all, many experts conclude, advanced climate research in the United States is fragmented among an alphabet soup of agencies, strained by inadequate computing power and starved for the basic measurements of real-world conditions that are needed to improve simulations. The New York Times, 11 June 2001**

At first I thought of crackers, fragmented in the alphabet soup, and it almost worked. But then he strained the soup - so there went my crackers - and said we - or someone - was starved. Which was no surprise if he is going to go around straining the crackers out of the soup.

We must be so careful.

In the hands of an amateur, a metaphor can make a reader laugh at inappropriate times:
"It's like ice cold electricity passing through your body." another unnamed novelist

Readers who find themselves laughing at inappropriate times also find themselves distracted from the story the author is trying to tell:

"We traveled through remote Chinese villages where the hand of Westerners has never set foot."*

But the art of writing is full of subtlety. Even a bad metaphor has its uses. In the right hands, it can make the author look clever, even if he or she is not:

Take for instance the writer who wrote:

"We are in a butt-ugly recession right now, but we are seeing light at the end of the tunnel."*

I have no way of knowing if this writer meant to make me laugh at the clever irony of his statement, but even if he didn't, with a little practice - an upturned eyebrow, a tiny smirk - he can make it seem that he did.

I've learned this. Don't ask how.

Furthermore, we novelists have one more sensible use for botched metaphors: characterization!

We love characters who say silly things. Remember Frank Burns, from M*A*S*H, who asked "Can't you read the handwriting in the wind?"

How could you not love a character who told another to "fish or get off the pot?"

I have a niece who once told me that when a house-guest irritated her by sleeping on the couch in the middle of the day, she "turned the dishwasher on full blast" to wake him up. I didn't think she was silly. I thought she was funny, and clever. I wondered how she might fit in a novel...

So sometimes bad writing can be good, but you must use it with utmost skill. You can mangle a metaphor on purpose: to be ironic, or to build interesting characters.

You just can't mangle a metaphor by accident.

That dog won't fly.

Now, your turn: you came up with such great metaphors in the comments on Wednesday's post. Today I want you to tell me your best bad metaphors. It's Friday. Let's have some fun.

*Richard Lederer, The Revenge of Anguished English: More Accidental Assaults Upon Our Language
**Jack Lynch, Guide to Grammar and Style


Nicole said...

The snow was as white as an elephant's eye.

He hung from the rafters like a bunch of ripe bananas.

The wind pitched and moaned like a country song.


Marcia said...

"Her body hit the pavement like a garbage bag of vegetable soup."

It's not a mixed metaphor, but it certainly is a painful one. Seems to me I read it on a list of "things college students have written."

It was so gross I've never been able to forget it.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Katy, thanks for making me laugh so early in the morning. I used to have a boss who freely mangled metaphors, and I had to train myself to keep a straight face. I wish I could remember some of them.

Marcia, I actually found that garbage bag quote on a site with lines from college student essays. Yikes!

Anonymous said...

Oh, Katy, what a funny, entertaining post. It gave me a good laugh this morning too. I have to run out for an appointment, but I'll try to think of one when I get back.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and remember, everyone, SIMILIES use like or as; metaphors don't

Kathleen Popa said...

Nicole, check out elephant's eye on Google images. Brown. Even yellow.
But not white.

Marcia, you grossed me out. It reminds me of a term for vomit I once read: technicolor sneeze.

It does paint a picture.

I have to thank Debbie for emailing me the idea for this post. Now that's friendship!

Nicole said...

I know elephant's eyes aren't white, Katy. That's why it's so stupid. And I was up exceptionally early this morning which is why I remembered similies sometime after I posted these. Ahh well.

Kathleen Popa said...

Nicole: I knew you knew that. I was just sharing the joke.

Unknown said...

I'm swamped by a flurry of writing today so I'm just going to point you all to the wisdom of Dr. Gregory House:

I used to watch his show until I began to have nightmares about waking up in a hospital bed and seeing him. He's much better at metaphors than bedside manner.

Unknown said...

Blogger cut off the link: (remove the space after the com/ to get it --)

Bonnie Grove said...

Killer apple pies.


Henrietta Frankensee said...

The old battle axe sheathed her claws and sued for peace.

This one was suggested to me by an article in our local Christian rag:
"In our neck of the woods women are denied access to the Plexiglas pulpit." He used the two allusions in adjacent paragraphs.

Consider Daisy the cow peacefully chewing her cud, all 'doesedotes and maresedotes and little lambsedivy'.

Jan Cline said...

Ive gotten a lot of mixed reactions from this:
Dumb as a bag of hair.

I think it's a Southern expression. Always made me laugh, but some people just kind of stare at me.

Bonnie Grove said...

Oooo! Jan, the one I've heard is "dumb as a sack of hammers."

Anonymous said...

Ahem ... These are still similes ...

Nicole said...

"Dumb as a well rope." "Dirt dumb."

(We're a rebellious bunch, Sharon.)

some chick said...

My husband has an aunt who is famous for mixing metaphors.

The only one of hers I can think of right now is:

"That's the way the crumbles fall."

beka said...

Oh, these are great!
I actually laughed audibly (not just in my head) for some of them.
Hmmm....nothing's coming to me to add to this list.

Bonnie Grove said...

Metaphors are like similes.
Or is it that similes are like metaphors?


I'll smarten up, Sharon!

Some day.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Nicole, you are unruly students.

Okay, class, I don't pretend to have the gift of metaphor, but here goes:

Simile: The hardness of my heart was like a brick wall, keepng out the feelings.

Metaphor: The walls of my heart were crumbling faster than I could reapply the mortar. I had to keep out the feeling, had to. The feeling is what would kill me.

Nicole said...

Clink! Here's to similes! . . . And metaphors.

That snow climbed up to my crazy white elephant's eye.

Seeing him dangle there from the rafters made me think of a bunch of ripe bananas.

That ol' country song matched the wind pitching and moaning outside the barroom door.