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The Vocabula Review

moribund metaphors

Metaphors, like similes, should have the briefest of lives. Their vitality depends on their evanescence.

Yet must we ever endure the dimwitted (it's) a jungle (out there), an emotional roller coaster, a stroll (walk) in the park, (like) being run over (getting hit) by a (Mack) truck, (as) cool as a cucumber, everything but the kitchen sink, (as) hungry as a horse, leak like a sieve, light at the end of the tunnel, out to lunch, over the hill, pass like ships in the night, (as) phony as a three-dollar bill, (a) piece of cake, rule the roost, window of opportunity, (every parent's) worst nightmare, and countless other metaphors that characterize people as dull, everyday speakers and writers, indeed, as platitudinarians? Nothing new do they tell us. Nothing more do they show us.

Moreover, if it weren't for our plethora of metaphors, especially, sports images — above par, a new ballgame, batting a thousand, do (make) an end run around, down for the count, hit a home run, off base, pull no punches, stand on the sidelines, step up to the plate, took the ball and ran with it — and war images — a call to arms, an uphill battle, battle lines are drawn, draw fire, earn his stripes, first line of defense, in the trenches, on the firing line, take by storm — men and, even, women would be far less able to articulate their thoughts. We would speak and write more haltingly than we already do; our thoughts and feelings more misshapen than they already are.

Metaphors hamper our understanding as often as they may help it. They interfere with our understanding not only when we use them singly but also, and especially, when we use them simultaneously, that is, when we use them together, metaphor on metaphor. Frequently incongruous, these metaphors disfigure any sentence in which they are found. • And by last Christmas, for any defense contractor, the dwindling Soviet threat had evolved from meal ticket into writing on the wall. • Our restaurant cost me and my wife an arm and a leg, but we didn't build it without planning and we certainly wouldn't let it go down the drain. • Right now, USAir's problem is trying to determine whether this is a soft landing for the economy or a recession, and the jury is still out. • For 20 years she was a rising star in the business, but by last year her success had gone to the dogs. • In the face of mounting pressure to gut or eliminate the IRS, it continues to shoot itself in the foot by biting the hands that feed them. • Looking at those things, it didn't take a rocket scientist to see there was something rotten in Denmark. • Thanks to Clinton, Lewinsky, & Co., I'm off the hook and it's on the table.

We rely on metaphors not because we feel they make our speech and writing more vivid and inviting but because we fail to learn how to express ourselves otherwise; we know not the words.

In truth, the more of these metaphors that we use, the less effective is our speech and writing. Neither interesting nor persuasive, their expression fatigues us where we thought it would inform us, annoys us where we believed it would amuse us, and benumbs us where we hoped it would inspire us.

quack equations

a deal is a deal; a politician is a politician; a promise is a promise; a rule is a rule; bald is beautiful; bigger is better; enough is enough; ethics is ethics; fair is fair; God is love; less is more; more is better; perception is reality; (what's) right is right; seeing is believing; talk is cheap; the law is the law is the law; what happened happened; what's done is done. This is the sort of simplicity much favored by mountebanks and pretenders, by businesspeople and politicians.

Quack equations too readily explain behavior that the undiscerning may otherwise find inexplicable and justify attitudes that they may otherwise find unjustifiable. No remedies for shoddy reasoning, no restoratives for suspect thinking, these palliatives soothe only our simple-mindedness.

Equally distressing is that there is no end to these false prescriptions: alcohol is alcohol; he is who he is; math is math; money is money is money; people are people; plastic is plastic; prejudice is prejudice; their reasoning is their reasoning; the past is the past; wrong is wrong. Forever being fabricated and continually being merchandized, shoddy thinking is far more easily dispensed than sound thinking.

Robert Hartwell Fiske


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