I am not part of whatever drug deal Rudy and Mulvaney are cooking up.

– John Bolton to Fiona Hill (July 10, 2019)

In the most quoted metaphor from President Trump’s impeachment, John Bolton compared the dirt-for-aid trade to a street crime. Not white collar crime. Not mafia crime. Not a federal crime – which the Office of Management and Budget eventually decided did occur.

The thing about a drug deal is the parties can’t trust each other. The buyer is crazed with need. The seller is utterly lacking in humanity, and possibly short on business ethics. It’s a recipe for suspicion, betrayal, and violence. Thus in the 1990s “drug deal gone wrong” became a byword for street crimes that would never be solved but were no mystery.

In Bolton’s view, the Rudy Giuliani/Rick Mulvaney “drug deal” could go wrong in a hundred foreseeable ways. Making the same point in a further metaphor, Bolton said, “Giuliani’s a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up.” It remains to be seen whether the grenade will explode. Giuliani might be a dud.

Illustration: From a Thomas Nast cartoon (1872), via Wikimedia

Back to top

…it was just one of a number of black eyes the organization sustained in the run-up to this year’s Oscars, nearly all of them self-inflicted.

– Josh Rottenberg, “No thanks to the academy…” LA Times (February 24, 2019)

Black eye transitioned from medical to metaphorical injury in the early 1700s – notably in a tussle of two poets, where Colley Cibber taunted Alexander Pope about “the last black Eye I gave you.” Cibber had published a pamphlet ridiculing Pope – the verbal equivalent of a public thrashing – which must have incited gossip and embarrassment for days, like an actual black eye.

By the early 1900s, the personal black eye was supplemented by the group black eye. In 1913, an article in The Saturday Evening Post complained of unscrupulous growers who gave the entire farming fraternity a black eye. In the same year, the American Cloak and Suit Review lambasted penny-pinching manufacturers: “The entire garment industry will probably get a black eye, because of your over-conservatism.”

The group black eye gave rise to a variation – the self-inflicted group black eye (SIGBE) – in the late 1990s (e.g., in Jean Mater’s Reinventing the Forest Industry, 1997). In the early 2000s, news stories credited self-inflicted black eyes to the SEC, the US Army, UK security police, CBS, Ohio State University, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Major League Baseball, China, Biotech, Harley-Davidson, and others. At the 2019 Oscars, no one from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences came to the stage to thank everyone who made their SIGBE possible.

Back to top

Inflation is already “baked into the cake.”

– Tim McMahon, InflationData.com, July 14, 2006

The “baked into the cake” metaphor seems to have gotten started in the early 2000s, first among stock-market bloggers and then political talking heads. The question is: are things being dissolved into the cake batter, like sugar, flour, and baking powder? Or is there a prize being suspended in the middle, like the trinket in a king cake? If so, the “prize” is often an unwelcome consequence.

Inflation is a good thing in conventional (non-metaphorical) baking. Gas bubbles trapped in the batter give cake its air-filled texture, so it springs back when pressed lightly. But inflation is bad in financial markets. Money that is light and airy buys less than money that is heavy and dense like gold.

Either way, the sense of the expression is you are stuck with your cake as is. You not only have it, you are going to have to eat it too.

Back to top

No, you would have her to be tenderly and delicately nurtured, like a hot-house plant…

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) by Anne Bronte

Bronte scoffs at the idea that girls need to be sheltered more than boys from the evils of the world, because of the presumption that females have less capacity for moral judgment. The truth is we all need all the sheltering and nurturing we can get, regardless of gender. At least, that is the view taken by Bronte’s protagonist Helen Huntingdon, on the run from an alcoholic husband.

A couple of years earlier, Charles Dickens used hot-house imagery to comment on another theory of cultivating young minds: accelerated education, as practiced at Doctor Blimber’s school in Dombey and Son:

All the boys blew [bloomed] before their time. Mental green-peas were produced at Christmas, and intellectual asparagus all the year round. Mathematical gooseberries (very sour ones too) were common at untimely seasons…. This was all very pleasant and ingenious, but the system of forcing was attended with its usual disadvantages. There was not the right taste about the premature productions, and they didn’t keep well. (ch. 11)

Greenhouses became a hot topic after the 1830s, as scientific breeding of plants converged with improvements in iron and glass manufacturing. Greenhouses were the first buildings made in factories. The first public greenhouse opened in Regent’s Park, London, in 1846.

Photo: Otto Eerelman, “In the Greenhouse”: http://www.artnet.com/artists/otto-eerelman/in-the-greenhouse-oiYeMedzQfuSwIBX2od_kA2

Back to top

Negotiating with this White House is like negotiating with jello.

– Senator Charles Schumer (January 20, 2018)

Jello – as hard to photograph as it is to nail down.

The essence of the president’s negotiating strategy is consistency – that is, avoiding a consistency which is too firm. The art of the deal is wiggle. Mercurial would have described this quality years ago, but there is less mercury around today, and fewer people have seen first-hand how it squirts away when you try to grasp it. Today we say details are difficult to nail down.

In 1984, Electronic Business kvetched: “Trying to understand IBM’s networking strategy is like trying to nail Jello to a wall.” It’s not obvious why one would try to nail a cafeteria dessert to a wall, but the image teaches us to see jello as a firm fluid. In 1971, a Society of Plastics Engineers paper characterized jello as an elastic medium: “The concept of sound can be more rigorously defined as the disturbance or vibration of an elastic medium. To visualize this, consider that a room is filled with a material such as Jello…”

So jello is like the air we breathe, and thus “soft as a breeze.” In a 1940 issue of Southern Folklore Quarterly, there is a list of similes for softness, including: soft as butter, soft as cat feet, soft as cotton, soft as down, soft as jello.

Photo: Karl Stull

Back to top

The system is totally rigged and broken.

– Donald Trump, October 22, 2016

The rigging of a sailing ship is fairly basic engineering, but it can get complicated. To hold a mast upright requires a system of adjustable ropes that pull with balanced force in different directions. Added masts and taller masts require more elaborate rigging, with rope tensions “in tune” throughout the system. In the early 1500s, a “weale and pompously rigged” ship was an admirable sight.

A hundred years later, landlubbers were using “rig” metaphorically. Just as a sloop or yawl was recognizable by its arrangement of sails, so a man’s “rig” referred to his character. A related expression, “I like the cut of your jib,” persisted into the 20th century.

By the early 1800s, “rigged” also described clever schemes to lure stock investors – with “made markets, rigged shares, paid puffs in the newspapers, and all the other scandals.” In this image, an insubstantial investment is made to stand up, as it were, by an array of clever supports.

The stock-market sense of rigging is an insult to seamanlike ingenuity. On the other hand, it is understandable that all expert systems look alike to an outsider – difficult, arbitrary, favoring those who know how to pull the strings. When candidate Trump said the US electoral system was rigged, he meant it was engineered to favor political insiders.

Then he won the election. We are forced to conclude: if the system was rigged, it must also have been broken, because the rigging didn’t work. Never before in history has a president been so right about so many things he knew so little about.

Note: Quotations are from “rig” entries in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Photo: USS Constitution in Boston harbor, by Seaman Matthew R. Fairchild; Wikipedia

Back to top

Level playing field vs. bargaining table

1919 view of the unlevel field where Abner Doubleday and residents of Cooperstown, NY, invented town ball; baseballhall.org

 

Without a level playing field, labor had little say or clout at the bargaining table. – Richard A. Hogarty, Leon Abbett’s New Jersey (2002)

A playing field and a bargaining table are both flat surfaces for adversarial encounters. You sit at a bargaining table to reach an agreement with an opponent (rather than settling differences by violence). On a level playing field, neither side has an unfair advantage. So the bargaining table and level playing field represent ideals of society – even if, for the sake of clean prose style, one should not ask readers to imagine them both in the same sentence.

The key difference between a bargaining table and a level playing field is that people in business actually sit at tables to bargain. Seldom do they take to a playing field for the sake of quarterly profits. Both are figures of speech: the playing field is a metaphor, and the bargaining table is metonymy.

Metonymy = meta + nym (changed + name)

  • The WHITE HOUSE said it would hold talks with MOSCOW.
  • The PEN is mightier than the SWORD.
  • Give them a big HAND, and lend me your EARS.

Metonymy is a nickname or shorthand form of reference, typically using an easy-to-visualize detail as an icon for something that is abstract or complex. In the examples, a building stands for a president’s administration and a city name stands for the Russian government; a writing tool stands for the expression of ideas in general, and a weapon stands for war; body parts stand for applause and attention. The figures in metonymy are always logically related to the subject they represent (bargaining table is literally where negotiations take place).

A metonym is an alternative name; a metaphor is a comparison.

Back to top

The marshmallow is melting.

– Martha Walton, Vermont resident, on early spring weather

People have been awed by the beauty of snow and ice for millennia, but we have only been comparing it to confectionery since the late 1600s, when cookbooks first described “icing” as a sugary syrup poured onto a cake and hardened in the oven. References to cake “frosting” began in the mid-1700s, and “marshmallow” became the name for a puffy-gummy candy by 1857.

The edible cottage in the story of Hansel and Gretel, with its boiled-sugar windows (Grimm’s Fairy Tales, 1812), helped popularize gingerbread houses as a baking specialty. The E.T.A. Hoffmann story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King (1816), which became Tchaikovsky’s perennial Christmas ballet, did the same for confectionery landscape. Hoffmann’s story features a Candy Meadow, a Lemonade River, an Almonds and Raisins Gate cemented with sugar, and the original chocolate city, Bonbonville. Penny-candy stores, opening their doors on Main Street in the 1830s (thanks to new manufacturing technology), and mass-marketing of Santa Claus led to sugar-plum visions of the North Pole as a sucro-delic paradise.

What-if ideas about a world where everything is yummy go back to medieval poems and songs about the Land of Cockaigne, a legendary country where sinful pleasures are available every day – gluttony, sex, sloth on demand. The streets, to borrow a phrase from Encyclopedia Britannica, are “paved with pastry.”

Photo: Sperry Chalet, Glacier National Park; nationalparkstraveler.com

Back to top

To Pimp a Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar said in an MTV interview that the original title of To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) was To Pimp a Caterpillar, with the phonetic “Tu” plus acronym PAC forming a reference to Tupac, a guest performer on the album.

Lamar said he changed the title to express the “brightness of life” and make it clear he rejected being used as a commodity by the entertainment industry. So butterfly is the beauty of life, seen in the work of an artist. To pimp a butterfly is to exploit the artist.

Another American writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, used a similarly symbolic butterfly to protest against the materialistic society of his time. The butterfly in the short story “The Artist of the Beautiful” is the creation of a watchmaker. It flies only briefly, but long enough to achieve what art achieves.

As a thought experiment, imagine a conversation between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Kendrick Lamar. It’s funny at first, but they might understand each other.

Back to top

Good for the goose, good for the gander.

The gender of a gander is male. A goose is a female goose when sorting geese by sex. So the old saying is more feminist than you might have thought. It means: “What’s good for the female is good for the male.”

Do you agree?

In a world where men get higher pay than women, it’s better for everyone if we say, and mean: “Good for the gander, good for the goose.”

Back to top