An amplified silence, like the sound through a hearing aid, fills the room.

Drive My Car (2021)

In certain settings, you become aware of silence. What you hear is the air, a fluid medium that conveys sounds like ripples in a pond. In the quiet of a forest, you may hear air as a steady ssshhhhhh flowing around pine needles like reeds. In a coiled seashell, the restless air bends and echoes as in a canyon, and you hear far-off ocean waves.

In Drive My Car, amplified silence is what a housebreaker hears when she listens hard to know if someone has come home unexpectedly.

Drive My Car has moments of airless silence as well, and the soundtrack is then disturbingly void, like the vast spaces between planets. In these minutes, it feels like the people on the screen are in a kind of freefall — their footsteps, the rustle of their clothes, the reverberation of objects they touch, all blank.

Photo: The Orbit Pavilion was a sonic installation sponsored by NASA at the 2015 World Science Festival in New York;

Back to top

As the bore went into my tooth I was able to follow its every revolution as detached as a spectator at a funeral.

Hart Crane, letter to Gorham Munson (June 1922)

It’s unnerving to imagine a visit to the dentist in 1922, when electric drills were novel and the anesthetic was ether.

Under the ether, Crane had an out of body experience. He felt he had “spiraled” up to seventh heaven. Shock victims talk in similar terms about their perceptions and state of mind: events in slow-motion, objects seen in brilliant detail, a feeling of unconcern. The sense of detachment may elevate to feelings of resolution, serenity, love.

The heavenly feeling is very opposite from that reported by Edgar Allan Poe in “The Premature Burial” (1844). The narrator feels panic, sees only darkness. His seemingly disembodied shriek “resounded through the realms of the subterranean Night.”

After the ether experience, Crane felt a renewed confidence in himself as a poet. He was 23, and he foresaw doing his best work in his forties. He died at 32, in a downward spiral of alcoholism and emotional crises, by suicide. He jumped overboard from a ship in the Gulf of Mexico. Poe, a similarly tormented talent, died at 40.

Photo: Colorado Fuel & Iron Company (1946), via Wikimedia, Telesfro Deluna, miner, receives a dental exam at a company-owned clinic in Pueblo, Colorado.,_miner,_has_his_teeth_examined_by_dentist_in_company_owned_hospital_here._Colorado_Fuel_%26_Iron…_-_NARA_-_540453.jpg

Back to top

Once negativity starts in this circular fashion it has a tendency to build up and to spiral out of control.

William Thomas, An Assessment of Mass Meetings as a Method of Evangelism (1977)

Wages and prices spiraled down in the 1930s. They spiraled up in the late 1960s and 1970s, and so did inflation. All of these statistics can be plotted as straight lines on a graph. The references to spiraling, an image in 3-D, reflected new ideas about how economic trends get started and gain force.

In the field of psychology too, the idea that opposites interacting could create a self-accelerating spiral became widespread. Depression and mania — instead of simply alternating — were seen to intensify each other, “with each cycle representing a further descent on the spiral” (Wolpert, Manic-depressive Illness, 1977).

Then spirals turned up in group behavior, and the spirals were upside down. In sociology and political science, conflicts are external rather than within oneself, so spirals were seen to “escalate” rather than dive downward, and the energy spread outward rather than tightening to a life crisis. Negativity in a subgroup could take over a classroom, religious gathering, or political party. In studies of conflict among nations, the great worry in the 1980s was that an accident or miscalculation would “spiral out of control” into nuclear war.

In the aftermath of World War I, a poet foresaw society falling apart in a “widening gyre.” History itself is a spiral in W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming” (1919), expanding to such chaos that the center cannot hold. Our world collapses. A new spiral begins slowly to turn again.

Photo: NOAA at

Back to top

“For gossakes!” yelled Lew, jumping up. “That screws everything!”

— Ellery Queen, The Four of Hearts (1938)

The versatility of “screw” as a metaphor — from the looseness of “screwing around” to the tightness of “screwed down for life” (John Irving, Hotel New Hampshire, 1981) — is due to two qualities: 1) a screw turns, and 2) it holds things together in a close-fitting grip.

The “ruins entirely” meaning in Ellery Queen aligns with group 1, where things that are twisted are dishonest, disfigured, messed up. Screwing your face into a grimace and screwing your way into someone’s good graces are examples from the early 1600s. When Orsino complains in Twelfth Night that his untrustworthy ambassador “screws me from my true place in your favour” (V.1.121), he means he is being pulled out by devious (not straight) machinations.

The group 2 (close-fitting) meanings include screw as a synonym for “fuck” (1600s) and various other uses, such as threading a needle. A metaphorical screw is paired with a rivet in Cymbeline: “Why should I write this down that’s riveted, / Screwed to my memory?” (II.2.44).

One thing a screw does that other fasteners do not is: apply steadily increasing force. The technological importance of this feature is obvious in the olive press, printing press, and Inquisitor’s rack. Metaphorically, Lady Macbeth urges her husband to “screw your courage to the sticking place” (I.7.60). She must be forgiven for not knowing that the “sticking place” on a crossbow is the string retention latch.

When “screw” is understood as an instrument that applies pressure, the dual aspects of turning and close-fitting become inseparable, as in the Henry James title “Turn of the Screw,” where the coercive power of Fate, obligation, and desire prove themselves relentless.

Photo: Wine press at San Fernando Mission; Karl Stull at

Back to top

The corkscrew thinking required to manage spies sometimes twists one too many turns. One finds oneself charging forward while at the same time looking out one’s own arse.

— Winston Churchill character, Operation Mincemeat (2022)

Sometimes the best way forward is to go round and round. Corkscrews were the answer in the 1700s, when wine was first sold in corked bottles. The idea of using a spiral grabber was already familiar. For more than a century, musketeers had used a “worm” to extract ammo that was loaded but not fired.

Corkscrew was an instant hit with English speakers. Charles Dickens made a verb of it when Mr. Bantam “corkscrewed” his way through a crowd in The Pickwick Papers (1837). In Oliver Twist (1838), balding Mr. Crackit twisted what remained of his hair into “long corkscrew curls.” In Bleak House (1853), Mr. Guppy spoke of information that was “corkscrewed” out of Mr. Smallweed.

“Screwy” turned up around the same time, as slang for turned-around states of mind: meaning drunk in Great Britain (1820, per OED) and zany in the US (1887). The disorienting but not very rotational “screwball” emerged as a new term in cricket in 1866. In the movies, a “screwball comedy” stars a character who is “dizzy.”

Photo: Musket worm via Wikipedia at

Back to top

The electric cord of liberty still sparks in our hearts.

— Kevin McCarthy (rebuttal to President Biden speech (September 1, 2022)

The Law of Trying Too Hard is merciless, especially when you’re trying to stir profound emotion. It can be hard to see where the line of “trying too hard” is drawn, but you’ll know the second you’ve crossed it. Do not ask for whom the hecklers howl. They howl for thee, Kevin.

A helpful tip: keep it simple.

The “spark” of liberty is sufficient. It doesn’t need to be electric. “Electric” leads to a cord, and the cord leads to living room furniture. We can’t know specifically what was in Patrick Henry’s mind when he said, “Give me liberty, or give me death,” but it wasn’t a household appliance.

When the electric cord leads to an anatomical organ, game over. The word heart has both literal and figurative meanings, and given a chance, the peanut gallery always goes for the bodily function.

Words used in metaphors necessarily have both literal and figurative potential. Hence another iron law: Live by the sword, die by the sword.

Thank you to Lawrence Campbell for spotting this world-class mixed metaphor.

Photo: Vintage table lamp with flickering light, via eBay at

Back to top

I fear you’ll find that love is like the lovely lemon tree.

— Will Holt, “Lemon Tree,” recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary (1962)

It’s a pickle, you might say, when marriage is forever but love is not. As the refrain explains, love is inviting at first but then proves bitter.

Lemon tree very pretty
and the lemon flower is sweet,
but the fruit of the poor lemon is
impossible to eat

The song could add a verse about cars that look good on the lot but then spend more time in the shop than on the road. Americans have described unreliable cars as lemons since 1931 (Etymonline). Lemon laws have been on the books since the 1970s.

There could be yet another verse about disappointing things in general, known to Brits and Americans as lemons since the early 1900s (OED). Ditto for people who disappoint, such as sons of rich families, overrated prizefighters, and ratfinks.

“Poor lemon,” the song says. Lemon is a word to which Life has abundantly given lemons.

Photo: Karl Stull

I always thought of you as the canary in the coal mine.

— Bill Maher, Real Time (October 7, 2022)

“I’m interested to see where this metaphor is going,” Chris Wallace replied. Wallace had recently left Fox News. His presence on the right-wing populist channel had long been seen as evidence that its “air” was not poisoned by ideological bias. “Fair and Balanced,” Fox News said of itself, because Chris Wallace was on staff.

In olden days a canary in a coal mine was a kind of hostage, kept in a cage near the miners for their safety. If the canary fell off his perch, it meant carbon monoxide had reached a dangerous level. Time for the humans to get out.

Humans have a history of using animals for diagnosis and forecasting. Priests in ancient Rome read the entrails of sacrificial animals for signs of good or bad fortune. As recently as the mid-twentieth century, “The rabbit died” meant that a pregnancy test was positive.

With his career in transition, of course Chris Wallace was interested in where Maher’s metaphor was going. The key fact about a metaphorical canary is he is not dead yet.    

Photo: Charles J. Sharp, Sharp Photography,

Back to top

How much of a hiccup would it take to have a domino effect across the country?

— Jesse Kirsch, NBC Nightly News (November 20, 2022)

A hiccup is a disruption in the regularity of breathing. Usually it’s an isolated event. Hiccups sometimes come in a series, but not as a domino effect. Hiccups don’t cause more hiccups. Hiccups cause flight delays.

A metaphorical hiccup — such as a hurricane in Miami or a crew that is still flying in from Denver and won’t be ready to fly again for several hours — can disrupt the regularity of takeoffs and landings at an airport. Delays beget bottlenecks and backlogs. Snags lead to snarls, jams, and tie-ups. Stranded passengers, like so many Robinson Crusoes on a lonely beach, watch the dominoes fall from the eye of a perfect storm.

Photo: Lufthansa via

Back to top

Shoveling money out of airplanes looks good to Republicans.

— Doyle McManus, LA Times (March 25, 2020)

This headline is more monstrophor than metaphor. While it’s true that a metaphor can be understood as an “as if” statement —

He shot a vengeful look across the room [as if shooting a gun]

— the “as if” always refers to a world of recognizable facts. There are guns in the real world, and people shoot them in anger. In contrast, no political party has yet endorsed air-drops of cash into disaster areas. A Republican administration did send money to everyone in America during the pandemic. Those checks were delivered by mail or direct deposit, not from a C-47.

You could say a metaphor is like a realistic novel, whereas the image of “shoveling money” is like Gulliver’s Travels — referring to a world turned upside down. It’s a satire, an allegory, a rhetorical monstrosity. It’s a monstrophor.

Photo: US Air Force C-17 drops relief to disaster victims;Tech Sgt James Harper Jr;

Back to top