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Metaphors Be With You

Yesterday in the tropes course we talked about that most basic and ubiquitous of tropes, metaphor. Unlike, say, epitrope, everyone has heard of metaphor (which doesn’t even need to be italicized anymore) and has a rough idea of what it is and does. Metaphor translates as “to carry across”: in practice it means to liken something to something else. It has been called the identity trope: an explicit likening (“My love is like a red, red rose”) is a simile; an implicit likening, which looks like an identity (“Charlie is a pig!”) is a metaphor. We mean, of course, that all of the perceived porcine negatives attach to poor Charlie: he’s greedy, slovenly, his room is (like) a pig sty, and so forth. The key to metaphor is that it is to be taken figuratively rather than literally and, fortunately, most of us realize that. Circe witched Ulysses’ men into real pigs; Charlie just has some of the characteristics. (A notorious mix-up that gets purists livid occurs when one says, “He got so mad he literally hit the ceiling.” No. Figuratively he hit the ceiling while remaining right there in his chair, fuming.) For obvious reasons, metaphor packs more punch than simile.

Metaphor is an eight hundred pound gorilla of a trope (speaking of metaphors). It is one of the four so-called Master Tropes—the others being metonymy, synecdoche, and irony—and is a very basic strategy of thought. We put two thoughts together—Charlie and a pig, say—and they give birth to a third thought. We know something about Charlie that we didn’t know before. And we have a damning picture of poor Charlie to keep us entertained. Richard Lanham says that just as a pun is irony in miniature, a metaphor is analogy in miniature.

We are awash in figurative language, the raw material of metaphor. Sports provides a slew of examples. Everyone should have a game plan. The ball is now in our court. She was a knock-out (but I couldn’t get to first base with her). The boss threw me a curve with that announcement. I used to think that to “know the score” came from sports, but I’ll bet it comes from music, another rich mine. There was a chorus of objections. I had better soft-pedal that idea. Or maybe I should pull out all the stops. My feelings reached a crescendo. We have eating metaphors: I can’t stomach your behavior; let me chew on that awhile. In fact—words are often fossil metaphors—to ruminate is to metaphorically chew one’s cud. This stuff is everywhere. It has been argued that all thought is metaphoric.

Then we have dead metaphors: metaphors or figurative terms that have been around so long that we no longer notice them. The hands and face of a clock, for example, or the heart of the matter. To broadcast. To lose face. To fish for compliments. To try to catch someone’s name. A neat trick with dead metaphors is to bring them back to life, and the very best example is what Henry David Thoreau did with “the spur of the moment.” Admit it—you never realized that that was a figurative expression. But Thoreau did. Somewhere in Walden he writes, “I feel the spur of the moment thrust deep into my side.” On a roll now, he adds, “The present is an inexorable rider.” You go, Hank!

So many of our adages, our aphorisms, are metaphoric (that’s what makes them memorable). Birds of a feather flock together. To burn the candle at both ends. Too many cooks spoil the broth. A stitch in time saves nine. A rolling stone gathers no moss. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. But these are tough on kids, who haven’t the experience to understand the folk wisdom behind the figures. When I was little, I couldn’t make a lot of sense of that rolling stone business. Or the bird in the hand. But it made perfect sense to me that a bird in the hand could gather no moss, so that was the version that I swore by for many years.

Then there is everybody’s favorite, the mixed metaphor.* Usually these arise from the collision of two adages or cliches. “It isn’t rocket surgery!” someone protests. Or we have cows coming home to roost. He knew how to butter his nest (yum!). Silence is bliss. Spare the rod, spoil the broth. I can read him like an open can of worms. Our late governor, Bruce King, once warned the legislature that they might be opening up a whole box of pandoras. My favorite example isn’t really a mixed metaphor, just a very awkward one: “Here we are in the Holy Land of Israel, a mecca for tourists”!

If metaphor is a strategy for thought, what in the world should we make of these?

*all real examples.

Meet Your Macinstructor

Jerome Shea is an emeritus professor of English at the University of New Mexico, where he still teaches his classical tropes course every fall and his prose style course every spring. He has been the Weekend Wonk since January of 2007. His email is


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