• In US elections, nominees for vice-president are sometimes called attack dogs. Their role is to sink teeth into the other party’s top candidate.
• “The fog comes on little cat feet”: Carl Sandburg, “Fog” (1916).
• Making money “is a hamster cage idea,” says David McCarthy in The Good Life (2006).
Literally, these statements are untrue. VP candidates are not dogs, fog has no feet, and hamsters never worry about their net worth. When words don’t make literal sense, we are driven to imagine how they might represent some aspect of truth, as in a fable. A metaphor is that kind of fiction.
In Sandburg’s poem, the fiction of the cat feet prompts us to a more open-eyed awareness of an everyday wonder: being immersed in a soundless, weightless, and blinding omnipresence.
It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on.
There is scientific language to describe the composition and behavior of fog. The purpose of metaphorical language is to make us stop, imagine, and see.
Photo: In Chicago, literal fog comes on metaphorical cat feet. Photographer unknown, via Wikimedia.
Though the imagery is vivid, “bodice-ripper” is not a metaphor — because it does not involve a comparison. It’s metonymy, using a key component or detail as an informal identifier.
• Wall Street = US stock markets • city hall = municipal government • hired hands = workers • boots on the ground = soldiers • shotgun = armed guard beside the stagecoach driver • mushroom cloud = thermonuclear war • greasy spoon = one-star diner • tabloids = sensationalist newspapers • nail-biter = suspense movie • tear-jerker = sentimental story
Metonyms are often pictorial, like metaphors, but differ in purpose. A metonym identifies an institution or class of things by using a trait-based nickname. A metaphor typically aims to describe vividly rather than identify, using an imaginative comparison to make you see a thing in a new way.
Painting: Princess Elisabeth of France wears a laced bodice over a white blouse. Painting 1782 by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun via Wikimedia
— Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (2011)
A prince calling to Rapunzel’s tower window would be very surprised if her hair came down like broken glass. Glass is hard, brittle, lacerating — not at all the soft, flowing, caressing mane to delight a lover. This simile disrupts expectations.
Lou is Charlie’s father, not a lover. The broken window is a father’s view of his little girl, now changed like so much else in the span of a life. Charlie pins her hair up with a porcupine quill, which Lou calls “a dangerous weapon.”
Teenagers need “weapons” in order to develop into their adult selves. New clothes, new hair, and music that grownups don’t understand: these are declarations of independence from parents who were just yesterday all-knowing and controlling. The change is dislocating for Lou, a music mogul who tells teens that on the inside he is the same age they are.
Hailstones and grains of wheat are alike in one respect: they are smaller than huge fragments. They are unlike in most other ways. These are similes, not photographic descriptions.
Hailstones fall down and bounce. They are round and made of ice. In contrast, cereal grains have two parts: a light husk (chaff) and the heavier, fleshy seed. Grain flies up and away from the thresher’s whip, and then the seeds fall down into a pile while the chaff goes parasailing away. If you asked Coleridge to decide — “Which is it then, hailstones or chaffy grain?” — he might say, “Well, um, I guess the life-bearing grain. But, no, in some ways, er, the ice from the sacred river. My dream, you know, it was all rather a tumult.”
The fountain is the portal between conscious and unconscious ideas in a fabulous theme park called Xanadu. The park is laid out as a map of the mind with a sunny, civilized dome on top and a river running through unfathomed caverns below. Between the two regions, one hears voices of the past foretelling the future, full of meaning and music just beyond the poet’s reach.
It was a miracle of rare device, A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
— Gerry Goffin/Carole King, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” (1960)
Eyes are receivers, not transmitters, of literal light — so what is this figurative “light” of love? Dusty Springfield agrees there is such a thing as “The Look of Love” (1967) that is in your eyes. She claims further that it can’t be disguised — with an amused James Bond sort of smile, for example.
Sole focus and gaze duration — or slack-jawed staring — seem to be the key in “I Only Have Eyes for You” (1934):
Maybe millions of people go by, But they all disappear from view. I only have eyes for you.
In the bleakest song Paul McCartney ever wrote, about the end of “a love that should have lasted years,” he has us look at the opposite of the light of love: nothing, a dark empty chamber behind each pupil.
In her eyes you see nothing, no sign of love behind the tears.
Smitten-eye deniers find their anthem in “It’s in His Kiss” (1963), which asks right off the bat: “Is it in his eyes?” The answer: “Oh, no, you’ll be deceived.” In the follow-up Q and A, singer-teacher Merry Clayton keeps bringing us back from possible interpretations to literal facts:
In his warm embrace? Oh, no, that’s just his arms.
John Lennon, who called the eye’s iris kaleidoscope in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (1967), cautions us about “joo-joo eyeball” in “Come Together” (1969), the sure sign of “a joker, he just do what he please.”
The speck is a small sin, the log a big one. The impossibility of having a log literally in your eye shows it’s tricky translating figurative language. The expression must have “sounded right” in the original Koine Greek (or Aramaic). Consider how far afield you would have to go to explain to a Samaritan the sense of these literally senseless statements:
A miss is as good as a mile. There’s no fool like an old fool. When it gets dark I tow your heart away.
Bible translators strive to stay literal, not taking it upon themselves to edit God’s word. They focus on finding just the right synonyms for log and speck (beam, plank, mote — ech, splinter???) but are blind to the figurative elephant in the verse. Suppose “eye” means “point of view.”
Why do you see the tiny flaw in your neighbor’s point of view, but do not notice the big flaw in your own point of view?
This less literal wording saws off the log/beam/plank and clears away the dubious supposition that neighbors in Biblical times criticized one another for eye hygiene. However, we have to keep in mind that “point of view” is a concept supported in modern English but may not be so in the original. “Eye” might mean something closer to “judgment” or even “doctrine.” There might be a meter maid in the background we know nothing about.
Thinking of lumberjacks called Staggering Dan or Three-Fingered Ollie, you can form a specific idea of the sudden crushing power of a log driven by turbulent water. Norman Mailer’s first novel describes what it felt like being inside the log.
For soldiers huddled in darkness belowdecks, the night literally rocked and shuddered with the recoil of naval guns. The rocking and shuddering were also emblematic, of the whole war as experienced by front-line troops — the hours, days, weeks of not knowing what’s going on, whether the next minute would bring disaster or just more waiting, the sleepless fear, confusion, anger, all of it leading to mental exhaustion.
Logs in the history of English figurative language have been mostly stolid and congestive. OED cites the log that one may sleep like and the log that is easy to fall off of (New Orleans Daily Picayune, 1839). OED also notes a 1967 slang example where log means a heavy surfboard — a reference to the origins of the sport.
Photo: In an overhead view, the USS Iowa fires guns after a sharp turn during an exercise near Puerto Rico in 1984, via Wikimedia.
Veterans’ memories of war eventually take on time’s “nature-look,” a term Graves invents and leaves us to figure out from a simile. The simile of “night-stumbling” might be paraphrased (volubly) as:
Memories across many years are like the view from a great distance. Traces of your route are visible — the slope where you slipped and slid, the brush you hacked through in search of the road, the campfire you lit waiting for dawn. But there is nothing in the daylit greenery to show your pain from injuries, confusion, anger at the unfairness of it all, the pointlessness, the fear of being lost and forgotten, the fear of dying by happenstance.
In today’s terms, the nature-look is a “new normal,” a downward revision from the way things felt back then to the way things now just are.
Graves coins new words (dying young is a “fate-spasm”) and uses familiar words in weird ways (“Sick with delight”) to re-invoke the horror leafed-over by the nature-look — because “learnedly” (knowing better) veterans themselves indulge in childish war talk and “yet more boastful visions of despair.”
Before the universe was fully air-conditioned, there were fans. From the 1890s to the 1990s, fans sat on desks or stood on poles pushing air past sweaty faces for evaporative cooling. The fans were caged, to keep hair and hands from coming too close. Sometimes a strip of cloth tied to the cage flew outward like a flag, assuring everyone at a glance that the fan was spinning and doing the best it could. The room was just that hot.
Aigeltinger was a math brainiac classmate of Williams in college. Aigeltinger’s mind was so busy and far-reaching you could almost see thought-energy radiating from his head in frantic waves. Late in life, Williams began to feel the literary world had passed him by, judging him “unprofound.” He took comfort in his recollection of Aigeltinger — a fine mind ill-used by an uncomprehending world.
The metaphor of a fan with brain-waves is cartoonish, and it’s surprising to find nerd-mockery in Williams, who is known for his plain American voice. Then again, nothing could be more American than our caricature of crazy-hair Albert Einstein.
— Matt Egan, CNN business reporter on a White House plan to reduce gasoline prices (January 18, 2022)
The metaphorical bandaid is an easy, short-term fix. A game changer is a player or a new strategy that forces other players to rethink old ideas about how to win.
In baseball, for example, traditionalists used to see players as either big or fast. They had home-run power or they had speed. The lumbering left-fielder was an archetype of the unavoidable trade-off: he drove in three runs at the plate but allowed two by not catching up to reachable fly balls. Then steroids came along, producing a generation of players who were both big and fast. Game changer.
The term “game changer” appeared in the 1980s (per search of Google Books) and made its way into business jargon. Business often borrows sports vocabulary, based on a conscious comparison of business to a “game,” in which fielding a successful team, gaining a competitive advantage, and winning are the G-O-O-O-O-O-A-L !!!
In 2002 and 2003, the “moneyball” Oakland Athletics returned the compliment by using business analytics to reach the playoffs with the highest-performing team at the lowest total-salary cost.