At night such a fire is weird and beautiful,…one sees the tongues of flame as they leap and dance…and, if the wind is high, blowing forward advance guards and pickets of sparks and flakes of burning grass.

– Norman Garstin, “In C-P-Railia,” The Art Journal (vol 54, 1892)

Fire is dazzling, dangerous, out of control at times. It’s hard to understand what fire is, compared to a substance such as water or even wind, as observed in a dust storm. Fire is visibly active, but what is it doing? Flames leap as if driven by spirits, make mad gestures like dancers in a frenzy. Flames are sometimes forked and darting, like a snake’s tongue (ancient enemy in the Bible).

In fire, Garstin sees the main body of an army crossing the prairie (domain of the Central Pacific Railroad). It hurls sparks forward, advancing at breathtaking speed. This ability to spread rapidly gave rise to “catch fire” as a marketing metaphor. In the 1960s, surfing caught fire, mini-skirts caught fire, Tiny Tim caught fire.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, catching fire gave way to “going viral.” In 2020, the year of coronavirus, we have reason to reconsider “viral” as a metaphor for success.

Illustration: “Chicago in Flames – The Rush for Lives Over Randolph Street Bridge” by John R. Chapin in Harper’s Weekly (1871) via Wikimedia Commons

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The makeup in “Bombshell” is a striking metaphor for how the women of Fox News – particularly the up-and-comers striving to fit the Barbie doll mold – submit themselves to a contrived aesthetic that is forced and not particularly beautiful, but is meant to convey the idea of beauty.

– Robin Abcarian, “We are in the midst of an epidemic – of false eyelashes,” LA Times (February 12, 2020)

 

An eagle and the idea of an eagle. The idea stylizes some features, doesn’t bother with others.

 

The distinction between “beauty” and “the idea of beauty” is arresting. It suggests that anyone, even a plain james, can pass for good-looking by applying beauty symbols in key areas around the face and body. Other examples of beauty icons that are not beautiful in themselves include:

  • Glue-on moles on the cheeks of ladies in the 1700s
  • Bustles under dresses of the late 1800s
  • Clairol blonde hair with dark roots

Not to be confused with falsies, these beauty apps are not meant to fool anyone about breast size, eye size/color, etc. As Abcarian makes clear, false eyelashes are obvious fakes. They don’t mind if you notice. They are there to remind you of a certain ideal – such as an imagined Cleopatra. The ideal might be tinged with just a dash of trash and a possibility of reckless sex.

We may never know who was the vamp queen of the silver screen who haunted the mind of young Roger Ailes. But we see her invoked every day on Fox.

Images: Eagle by Saffron Blaze (2012), emblem of the 101st Airborne Division, and Theda Bera as Cleopatra; all from Wikipedia

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The contact lens for your ear.

– Advertisement for a miniature hearing aid

If this is your first time reading about a contact lens for the ear, you might wonder how a device to improve hearing can be like a device to improve eyesight. Hearing and seeing are both sensory experiences but not at all alike. Seeing a cello is not the same as hearing one.

So this is a comparison that, rather than explaining, works by demanding an explanation. Certain jokes use the same trick – for example, Ben Franklin’s assertion that houseguests are like fish. (They begin to smell after three days.) Metaphors are usually meant to clarify but sometimes they mystify on purpose – so the audience will be curious and pay close attention.

Lyric hearing aids – much smaller than conventional hearing aids – are implanted inside the ear, so they are invisible to the public, like contact lenses. People judge you to be younger and more attractive.when you are not wearing bulky apparatuses, such as bifocal glasses or boxy earplugs.

Metaphor is a contact lens for your mind.

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Life is a journey.

A google search of “is a journey, not a destination” yields 1.5 million results, mostly quotations about Life. The “life is a journey” metaphor is one of the oldest in literature, answering one of our oldest questions: Why are we here? The concept of travel helps us understand novelty and change, for it’s a wide world, and the traveler is not exactly the same person he was at the beginning of the journey.

The google results that are not about Life relate to subheadings of Life (such as Wisdom, Healing, and Sustainable Fashion). Most of these are of the “sex is not about orgasm” type. As often as Catholics used to say “It’s a mystery,” the new explainers say, “It’s a process.”

The following are journeys, not destinations:

PHILOSOPHY

Happiness, Peace, Success, Joy, Art, Education, Destiny

PRACTICAL SELF-HELP

Fitness, Nutrient management, Losing weight, Quitting smoking, Gut health, Yoga

EMO SELF-HELP

Recovery, Growth, Therapy, Creativity, Strength, Love, Trust, Home, Faith, Attachment in adoption, Stages of life: Birth, Childhood, Youth, Motherhood, Everyday Parenting, Retirement

BUSINESS MANAGEMENT

Innovation, Leadership, Diversity, Becoming culturally competent, Entrepreneurship, Communication, Team transformation, Agile transformation, Walking the talk, Total quality management, Digital transformation, Cyber security

AVOCATIONS

Food, Coffee, Tango, Photography, Writing

Some people work their entire adult lives thinking Retirement is the goal. Retirement is the beginning of another journey, leading to Death – yet another process, with stages, still not a destination.

Photo: Unknown

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I’ve got buns of steel!

– Student to fitness instructor Greg Smithey, 1985

The first baring of buns as a euphemism for buttocks came in the early 1960s. People needed a word that was neither vulgar nor clinical for a part of the body that was until then unmentionable in polite conversation. Context and the dome shape of a bakery bun made it clear which part of the anatomy was being referenced – in a coy, tittering way.

In short order, the metaphor became a dead metaphor (the reference to hamburger toppers faded away). Buns became an everyday synonym for buttocks in a new era, as ideas about the ideal body type for women shifted from soft and curvy to athletic – strong, hard, lean. Shape magazine began publishing in 1981.

In terms of imagery, buns of steel are the antithesis of bakery buns. No one is intimidated when bakery buns enter the room.

Photo: Karl Stull

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Drink the Kool-Aid.

More than 900 people drank the Flavor Aid in Jonestown (Guyana) in 1978 and died, a third of them children. Flavor Aid was the usual soft drink at the commune, and it was used to mix tubs of a grape-flavored cocktail, with sedatives and cyanide, at the mass suicide.

If people now say “drink the Kool-Aid” rather than “drink the Flavor Aid,” the marketing folks at Kraft Foods have only themselves to blame. Thousands of hours of television advertising (jolly pitcher of punch bouncing in on a children’s party) prepared a generation to hear the irony in today’s intonation of “drink the Kool-Aid,” describing innocents who have been programmed to follow the party line against their own interest. As the jolly pitcher used to say, in that rumbly, let-the-good-times-roll basso: “Oh, yeah!”

By definition, metaphors are fast and loose with facts.

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THE MET…looks like a red double-decker bus that has stopped short, shoving the passengers into each other’s backs.

25METplusBusWithGap

Justin Davidson, blogger at vulture.com, dislikes the logo adopted last March by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, comparing it to a London tourist bus with everyone aboard being squished into each other.

True, the letters are seriously scrunched, and THE is a little shorter than MET, yielding a slightly sloped contour in the front and back — a not altogether unvehicular profile.

As a denunciation, Davidson’s post is unmemorable (except for the bus metaphor), but his appreciation of the old logo – the letter M proportioned to a square and circle, as in the famous Vitruvian man drawing by Leonardo da Vinci – may change the way you look at signage.

Read Justin Davidson’s blog about the Met logo: http://www.vulture.com/2016/02/metropolitan-museums-new-logo-the-met.html#

25DaVinciMan

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Roach motel

By buying US Treasury bonds, China has turned its national banks into “a string of monetary roach motels where sovereign debt goes in but never comes out.”

–David Stockman, NY Times Op-Ed, 3/31/2013

Roach Motel originated as a brand name in 1976. Its slogan — “Roaches check in, but they don’t check out” — has been adapted many times in the fields of business and computers. The pop lyric “You can check out anytime you like. but you can never leave” (“Hotel California,” 1977) may be related.

Understandably, metaphors based on irregular check-in/check-out practices and verbal linking of roaches with motels were not endorsed by the American Hotel and Motel Association (AH&MA), now the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

(Posted on FB June 20, 2013

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Genetic “fingerprints”

The catch-phrase “in their DNA” is everywhere this year. Corporations tell us proudly technology is in their DNA, innovation is in their DNA, brand power is in their DNA, farming is in their DNA… This is figurative language of a mindless kind.

Most of us know next to nothing about the fabulous four-bit molecule and how it does what it does. Much less how it is analyzed in a lab. But watching cop shows, we happily accept “genetic fingerprints” as irrefutable identification of the innocent or guilty, proving beyond any reasonable doubt that:

Susceptibility to metaphors is in our DNA.

(Posted on FB June 24, 2012)

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