When Metaphors Go Bad
Jerome Shea November 25, 2011 Weekend Wonk
Last week (Metaphors Be With You) I signed off with a question: “If metaphor is a strategy for thought, what are we to make of [mixed, butchered, metaphors]?” I’m still trying to answer my own question. What does “Spare the rod, spoil the broth” tell us about the person who offers us that piece of garbled wisdom? And that fellow who protested, “It’s not rocket surgery!”…what, as your mother used to wonder, was he thinking? The dismissive answer, I suppose, is that neither of them was thinking at all. But to be more charitable, they were thinking as well as most of us manage to do, but somewhere there was a synaptic slip that can and often does happen to any of us. The first speaker was trying to make a point about child rearing and the second a point about a simple problem to be confronted, when all of a sudden two different pieces of figurative language slipped in where they didn’t belong.
I submit that the reason for that synaptic slippage was that they were dealing in clichés, words or phrases that are overused—and there’s a judgment right there. Familiarity not only breeds contempt but it lulls us into not noticing what we are saying, not really recognizing the words we are using. Most writing books will tell you to avoid clichés like the plague (yes, “like the plague” is a cliché—you can have great fun this way). A cliché, the argument runs, is a dead giveaway (cliché!) of a lazy writer, one who will not stir his stumps (cliché!) to offer the reader something fresh. At worst it suggests a writer who is not thinking or caring at all and who therefore does not deserve the reader’s attention. But over the years I have come to think better of clichés. I no longer necessarily see them as evidence of moral rot in a writer or speaker. For one thing, that attitude could return to haunt me (cliché!) since none of us can avoid clichés. Can’t be helped. The best of us bat about .300. And some clichés, to my mind, really are the best way to express particular points. For years I winced whenever a student said that her mother or boyfriend or best friend “was always there for me.” But when, exasperated, I tried to express the same thought with as much directness and economy myself, I was stumped. I have finally come to appreciate the eloquent simplicity of that phrase and am willing to accept it even though it certainly is a cliché.
Not that I am always so charitable. One cliché that really pains me is the current descriptor “gentle giant.” Whenever some palooka is accused of a violent act, his friends will all rally round, express shock, and protest that the miscreant is a “gentle giant.” Maybe it is the sappy image. Maybe it is the lie (“[Gentle giant] kills nun in botched robbery”). Or maybe I am just jealous, being myself more toward the “docile dwarf” end of that spectrum. Sometimes the g.g. is a fellow who sacrificed himself heroically; in that case, I think he deserved better than that cloying cliché. For whatever reason, I hope I never hear “gentle giant” again. (Note, too, the alliteration, a very common characteristic of clichés.)
Almost any phrase that springs readily to mind is a cliché: if it springs readily to your mind, it likely springs readily to everyone else’s mind. One website lists almost a hundred clichés just beginning with A! “Another day another dollar,” “Ace in the hole,” “All over the map,” “Apple of my eye,” and so forth. Some seem a little far-fetched, maybe regional (“Already got one paw on the chicken coop”?) and some are easily dismissed (“Altitude is determined by attitude”? Never heard that before and hope not to hear it again). And what is a cliché to me may be shiny new to you, so it is not as clear cut as one might think. I would venture that at least half of our clichés are metaphorical and most of the rest are aphorisms of one kind or another. (Is “of one kind or another” a cliché? Do you see how easily you can make yourself crazy here?). And most aphorisms are metaphors anyway. It’s all a mare’s nest, a dog’s breakfast (from here on you can pick out the clichés yourself, Gentle Reader).
Clichés, like stars, are continually being born. Not so long ago an enterprising journalist came up with the handy template “X is the new Y.” Then someone chimed in with “What part of X don’t you understand?” and we were off to the races.
The irony of all this is that so many—not all, but so many—clichés arose from figurative language, and they became clichés because the original expression was so powerful and so apt that—unlike a dead horse—it was hard to beat. Take “the long arm of the law.” If you really visualize it, it is a terrifying image. The law, like some lanky giant, can snake out its long arm and pluck you from wherever you try to hide, no matter how long it takes. I would not hesitate to use that expression, despite what the cliché police say. And I could get away with it because it is so famous a cliché that I am signaling that I know that, but am using it anyway because it is tailor made for what I want to express. Dare I say it: I can have my cake and eat it, too?
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