C’mon, it’s like a zipper!

– I-80 motorist to merging traffic

On a crowded freeway, when two lanes of traffic must narrow down to one, the cars may come together like the teeth of a zipper – two sides taking turns to open and fill spaces efficiently. The “teeth” are not like chomping teeth but like the teeth in the gears of a well-designed machine, such as a pocket watch.

But sometimes the traffic gets jammed, as zippers sometimes jam. Jamming occurs in traffic when some of the drivers see themselves as racehorses rather than gears, jockeying for position in a crowded field where one will come out ahead and the others…well, they’re losers. Clearly, putting racehorses together with gear teeth results in a mishmash, something like a log-jam, in which the benefits of competition and cooperation are both lost. It is bad to mix metaphors.

The word log-jam entered American speech by 1885 (or 1851), and registered in the national imagination as an image of colossal system breakdown by 1907, when the Springfield Weekly Republican reported that a legislative log-jam had at last been cleared in Congress. Traffic jam became a word around 1917. The zipper came to market in 1925 as a closure for boots, a quick and easy alternative to too many buttons.

Photo: Karl Stull

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He wore cursing as his garment; it entered into his body like water, into his bones like oil.

– Psalms 109:18 (New International Version)

Psalm 109 indicts an enemy for cursing, but first has these choice words to say about him:

May his days be few…
May his children be wandering beggars…
May creditors seize all he has…
May the sin of his mother never be blotted out…

This psalm is unusual in having a very specific problem to talk about that anybody can relate to: someone is saying bad things about me. The poet feels the scorn of others, who shake their heads when he passes. They brush him off “like a locust.” He is being made to “fade away like an evening shadow.” The imagery is sharply seen and felt, seeming more personal than the generic green pastures and gold regalia of other psalms.

The metaphor of the garment, too, is personal in a subtle way, noticing how deliberately assumed guises can reshape identity (like Prufrock’s “face to meet the faces that you meet”). Just as the water that you drink gets into your body chemistry, so the words that you use habitually will infiltrate your character. The evil in those words gets into the marrow of your bones.

Photo: From an engraving of Elijah denouncing Ahab

2016

Foul rag and bone shop of the heart

Looking back on his career in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” (1939), reviewing the pretty tricks and turns of phrase that made him Ireland’s leading poet, William Butler Yeats resolved to return to the source of inspiration:

I must lie down where all the ladders start

In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

While admiring the power of the image, you might wonder: Is there such a thing as a rag and bone shop? Don’t people already have all the foul rags and bones they want, without need of a place where they can go and buy more?

Through the first half of the 20th century, rag-and-bone men went around city neighborhoods collecting recyclable trash. Rags were used in making paper. The grease in bones could be used for soap.

The Ragpicker, Edouard Manet, 1865-70. See it at the Norton Simon Museum, Pasdena, CA.

The Ragpicker, Edouard Manet, 1865-70. See it at the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA.

The collectors were at the bottom of the economic pyramid, so the cart they pushed or the bag thrown over their shoulder was all they had in the way of a “shop.” Yeats’s foul rag and bone shop could have been the yard of a middleman who bought from street collectors and sold in large lots to manufacturers.

Read “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” (with commentary in the left nav bar).

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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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Golden parachute

01GoldenParachute

A parachute made of gold instead of silk would weigh as much as a family fridge and be worth about $6 million.

Consider the Icarus Omega 189, a typical main-canopy parachute, which folds into a 458 cubic-inch pack. If a parachute were made of gold foil and folded into that pack (gold = 0.7 lbs/cu in.), it would weigh 321 lbs. With gold at $1,280 per ounce (14.58 troy ounces per pound), your golden parachute would be worth $5,990,630.40.

Is that enough to compensate for being pushed out of a high window of the corporate tower? Seriously, you should demand a platinum parachute.

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Insomniac’s view of sleep

Macbeth does murder sleep — the innocent sleep,

Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care,

The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,

Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,

Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

Macbeth II.ii.36-40

That’s a pillowcase-ful of metaphors for sleep. Sleep = innocent child, doting seamstress, daily death, nice warm soak in a tub, topical medicine for an owee, another entree after a big dinner, and — in a variation — the very food of waking life.

P.S. Mending the ragged cuff of your sleeve – there’s an image telling us that people of Shakespeare’s time experienced their everyday lives as we do, feeling the wear and tear of constant little worries.

(Posted on FB June 8, 2015)

Inebriation imagery

There are lots of synonyms for “drunk,” many of which are metaphorical — blasted, bombed, hammered, plastered, ripped, smashed, etc. Not to mention crocked, pickled, soused, and stewed.

However, there are only a few terms to describe how inebriation feels. “Tipsy” is a delightful one, though not metaphorical because it doesn’t involve a comparison (you really are about to tip over). “Light-headed” is another, and it is metaphorical if it evokes an image of your mind floating above your body like a balloon.

But for imagery of the effects of alcohol, who better to call on than Aimee Bender? In the short story “Off,” the narrator is into her third or fourth cup of wine and:

…the wine is making my bones loose and it’s giving my hair a red sheen and my breasts are blooming and my eyes feel sultry and wise and the dress is water.

(Posted on FB June 6, 2014)