California intensifies race to slow coronavirus’ spread

LA Times (February 29, 2020)


In this page-one headline, California is in a race with the coronavirus, but the competitors are not running side by side toward a finish line. The virus is running in all directions at once, like ants from an anthill. Or rats from a cruise ship.

In this application, “race” means go faster, get ahead of the spilled milk, and make it go slower. The moment for containing the threat with a finger in the dike has passed. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle. It’s no use shutting the barn door.

Instead our best hope is to interfere with the contagion and slow its progress: curbing, hedging, or hemmimg it in. Bogging it down. Or entangling, detouring, short-circuiting, or derailing it. In a literal race, all of these tactics would be cheating.

“It’s a race” might be the most common metaphor in journalism. It has the universality of “life is a journey,” juiced up with spectator interest: who will win? That question always gets attention among wolves, rats, elephant seals, and humans – species with males competing to be alpha.

Photo: Montana Public Radio,

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It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Though phrased like a simile, this expression is the opposite of metaphorical. Not only does it not involve an imaginative comparison, it denies the very possibility of comparison. Anything you can imagine has to be based to some extent on something you have seen or imagined before.

And yet, though it is not metaphorical, it isn’t literal either. When someone says – to pick an example at random – that North Korea will experience “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” the understood meaning is opposite to what the words literally say: that is, the fire and fury will be very like fire and fury the world has seen before, but with greater fieriness and furiousness than in the past two administrations. So like doesn’t mean “similar to”; it just means >.

Thanks to my friend Gary Karasik, who suggested “Like nothing you’ve ever seen before!” as a tagline for Metaphor Awareness Month.

Photo: Unknown, “Portrait of Something Similar to Nothing”

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An egg is a space capsule.

– Neil deGrasse Tyson, on Real Time with Bill Maher (May 19, 2017)

An egg is a sealed environment, protecting a passenger. It provides oxygen, nutrition, waste disposal, and shielding against life-threatening conditions outside. It is fragile, but engineered aptly to its purpose, and strong enough for the job most of the time.

An egg is meant to be opened. An egg delivers its passenger to a new world.

Thinking about the first creatures that came out of the sea to live on the land, it’s hard to picture how they transitioned from breathing water to breathing air. Yet it happens every time a chick hatches, every time a baby is born.

So the egg:space capsule comparison brings us to the answer to an age-old question: Which came first, the astronaut or the space capsule?

Obviously, there can be no space travel before there is a space capsule.

Photo: Apollo 5 space capsule, NASA/Wikipedia

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Why cold turkey is cold, or even turkey

When you consider the colorful contributions alcohol abuse has made to the English language, it’s surprising to find the vocabulary of addictive drugs so lackluster. Here is a taste (it’s free!) of the most evocative drug lingo:

  • Hooked is a vivid metaphor when you picture the ingenious bit of cruelty at the end of a fisherman’s line, with one point for going in and another for making withdrawal painful.
  • Monkey on your back gives a startling glimpse into the addicted mind, with its nonstop chittering about the next fix. Jones is pallid by comparison.
  • Kick the habit, as if it were a soccer ball, makes detox sound easy.
  • Cold turkey is American slang from the 1920s that means “without the trimmings of a fancy dinner.” Quitting cold turkey is kicking the habit on willpower alone.

For more about cold turkey, see The Phrase Finder:

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When Sarah Palin speaks, clichés stampede

When Sarah Palin endorsed Donald Trump for president, she gave a speech in Iowa that was long on enthusiasm but short on coherence. Check this mash-up of guts and heart, worn on one’s sleeve, with a certain sleeveless garment:

He’s got the guts to wear the issues that need to be spoken about and debated on his sleeve, where the rest of some of these establishment candidates…they’ve been wearing this political correctness kind of like a suicide vest.

Bill Maher was inspired to a further metaphor: “This woman has a thousand stupid clichés in her head, and when she opens her mouth, it’s like they’re all escaping a nightclub fire” (Real Time, January 22, 2016).

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Downhill from here — is that good or bad?

“All downhill from here” means the hard work of climbing is over and the easy part of a hike or bike ride is about to begin — UNLESS it has a quite opposite meaning, based on a different metaphor.

Sometimes people say “downhill from here” meaning things are at a peak of happiness right now and can only go in one direction: down into the valley of despond.

Because there are two potential meanings, you have to discover what the speaker intends from context. The imagery contributes nothing. This metaphor, or rather these two competing metaphors, have gone south…in the sense that south = down, as on a wall map.

(Posted on FB June 29, 2015)

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Like a rolling stone

For reasons having to do with mass and gravity, any stone you happen to find at any point in space and time will likely be at rest — i.e., disinclined to roll. It may be gathering moss. Given that stones are famously unfeeling (“heart of stone”), there is good reason to wonder what Mr. Dylan means when he asks: “How does it feel to be on your own, like a rolling stone?” Petrotropically speaking, it must feel like one is being forced downstream by the pressure of running water or tumbling down a slope out of control — heaved from a state of rest where one was able to gather moss.

Moss is a metaphor for having stayed too long in one place.

(Posted on FB June 23, 2015)

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Bargaining chip

The term bargaining chip first appeared in 1945, a year of many treaties and negotiations. Negotiations are often compared to the game of poker, because a player can win by bluffing or seeing through an opponent’s bluff. The problem with bargaining chip as a metaphor is: there is no bargaining in poker. It’s winner take all.

Chips increase the value of the pot, and a player might use a stack of chips to frighten others out of the hand (“too rich for my blood”). But the purpose of a bargaining chip is always to keep others at the table so they will agree to terms.

In a successful negotiation, one side may win. In a negotiation where one side walks out, both sides lose.

So bargaining chip is a befuddled metaphor, one that invokes an image that can’t be imagined.

(Posted on FB June 21, 2015)

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The plot thickens

In a quiet moment of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), M. Gustave wonders about the plot thickening and asks: “Is it a soup metaphor?”

The expression first appears in a 1671 comedy by George Villiers called The Rehearsal, where it means more developments are added to the storyline to make a play more interesting. So a plot thickens in the way a forest thickens – by having more trees per square foot. (You may remember Little Red Riding Hood, on her way to Grandma’s house, goes through a thicket.)

In contrast, the “thickness” of a soup refers to how runny the liquid is, not how many beans or noodles there are. To make a soup thicker, or more viscous, you use an ingredient that will absorb liquid, usually cornstarch or a butter-flour mixture (roux).

(Posted on FB June 20, 2015)

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Nest egg

The term nest egg first turned up around 1600 with a purely agricultural meaning, referring to decoy eggs that farmers placed in nests to encourage hens to lay in the henhouse rather than in some random, chicken-chosen location.

The financial meaning of nest egg appeared 100 years later, describing an initial investment that would cause more eggs to appear in the form of interest and dividends. Eventually, the “starter” meaning faded and the hoped-for many eggs (plural) simplified into the singular. Nest egg still appears in advertising by investment companies, though the logic behind the term has long since flown the coop.

(Posted on FB June 19, 2015)

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