…we had had to use one another by words like spiders dangling by their mouths from a beam, swinging and twisting and never touching…

– Addie Bundren, in William Faulkner’s As I lay Dying (1930)

Spiders have gotten stuck, as it were, in their own web, as an icon for wrongful use of language. The famous quotation from Sir Walter Scott –

O, what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive! (Marmion, 1808)

– is terribly unfair, because spiders don’t weave. They string nets. They are fishermen of the air. It’s an honest living, sort of – no worse than netting fish in the sea.

In The Battle of the Books (1704), Jonathan Swift demeans the Spider for work that is drawn from within, in contrast to the sweet constructions of the Bee, who gathers material from flowers throughout Nature. What’s within the Spider? Digested flies – yech!

Even Charlotte, the most beloved literary spider (E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web, 1952), must own up to using words for PR purposes. If one were to compile a list of 100 truthful words to describe Wilbur the pig, not one of them would be RADIANT.

Words are spider silk, according to Addie Bundren. Words form an invisible “shape” that can trap and hold others, so they cannot escape and do what they want to do. The shape is tenuous, only as real as the sound of the uttered words, yet sticky. Love is the biggest word-shape of all, keeping family members dangling separately but together from a beam.

Postscript: Spiders don’t typically hang together in a line. As I Lay Dying is full of improbable metaphors, some of them hilarious. Addie’s son Vardaman says, “My mother is a fish” (realizing that death is like a carp coated in dust). His brother Darl says of yet another brother, “Jewel’s mother is a horse” (recognizing that Jewel gave up his freedom for his mother’s sake). This novel is a northern Mississippi restatement of the truism at the beginning of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”


At every point in the loom, sovereigns were thrusting in their shuttles, carrying the strand of a son or a daughter, and these, whizzing back and forth, were the artificial fabric that created as many conflicting claims and hostilities as it did bonds.

–  Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)

The fabric of society was once a fairly common expression, conveying the idea that the whole is something different from (and greater than) the sum of its parts – as with a soup or a Jaguar XKE or a well-told story. As pictured by the metaphor, a society gets its unity from an interlocking of crisscross strands, individuals each pursuing their own course of life.

Revisiting the metaphor, Tuchman reminds us that weaving has to be done at regular angles, in a pattern that makes sense, or the result is a tangle. The royal families of medieval England and France were marrying off their children to Danes, Germans, Spaniards, Italians, and Hungarians in catch-as-catch-can strategies to gain territory, alliances, or claims to thrones. The result was the Hundred Years War.

In the 20th century, a morass of alliances, secret agreements, and royal interconnections turned the Serbian independence movement into the hairball known as World War I.

Photo: Adapted by Karl Stull

Eat like a bird.

To eat like a bird is to peck at one’s food, taking very small mouthfuls. To eat like a pig is the opposite, cramming such quantities into the oral receptacle as to cause sauce to fly and snarfling noises to be emitted.

People who eat like pigs but see nothing wrong with it say they eat like lions. “[W]e eat like lions, sleep like sloths,” reported Charles Hursthouse, describing men emigrating from Britain to New Zealand in 1857.

“Eat like a human being” looks like a simile but doesn’t involve an imaginative comparison; it just means “eat the way a human being is supposed to eat” – that is, not like an animal. Animals devour their food because the next meal might be a long time coming. A human being can afford to eat politely, because the pack he runs with has overcome the uncertainties of hunting. Human beings are creatures who share food and care what others might think.

Photo: Karl Stull

Ay, no wonder the child’s spoiled…

– Miss Pickle, aunt of Little Pickle in The Spoil’d Child (1792)

According to Miss Pickle, the child is spoiled because his indulgent father forgives Little Pickle’s every prank, hoping the boy will one day become an important man, maybe even an archbishop. For now, he is indeed a very bad boy, hooking up a string to pull a chair out from under his father as he is about to sit and, later, roasting the family parrot.

The “spoiled” metaphor is grim, for there is no hope of redemption for an egg or an apple gone bad. For a rotten apple, all that remains is to spoil the whole barrel.

A search in Google Books suggests the expression “spoiled child” first appeared a couple of decades before the 1792 play. An excerpt from London Magazine (vol. 41, 1772) identifies gradual weaning from breast milk as a form of coddling and spoiling.

I consider myself as a spoiled child, and I do not expect to be weaned from a mother’s indulgence in a single day.

Photo: Bitter rot in an apple; Ohio State University Extension (ohioonline.osu.edu)

Back to top

“Slippin’ Jimmy” with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun.

— Chuck McGill, character on Better Call Saul (season 1, episode “Pimento”)

Respected, principled, meticulous, Chuck McGill is the opposite of his brother Jimmy, who earned the nickname “Slippin’ Jimmy” by finding an easy way around every rule. For Chuck, the law is sacred. When Jimmy of all people passes the bar, it’s a catastrophe for the profession.

Like a bull in a china shop. Like a fox guarding the henhouse. Like a loose cannon on the rolling deck of a wooden ship.

These “recipe for disaster” figures of speech are fun to play with. Like a dessert cart in a diabetes ward. Like a tree huggers’ convention in Cactus Gulch. Like…


Back to top

Before there were any Geneva conventions

Plunder used to be the soldier’s reward for risking his life. Running wild in a conquered town was the cathartic climax after the rage of battle. So trying to restrain troops after a victory was futile, like trying to talk a whale into coming ashore.

Or, as Shakespeare said in Henry V (III.iii.24-27): “We may as bootless spend our vain command / Upon th’enraged soldiers in their spoil / As send precepts to the leviathan / To come ashore.”

(A beached whale must have been a rare sight in Shakespeare’s time. Today the term beached whale is common enough that it inspires pity when used literally and hilarity when used metaphorically – i.e., for a corpulent sunbather.)

In Shakespeare’s play, the young monarch beseeches the town of Harfleur to surrender before it is too late, “Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command” (29).

If not — why, in a moment look to see

The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand

Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;

Your fathers taken by the silver beards,

And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls;

Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,

Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused

Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry

At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen.

What say you? Will you yield and this avoid?

Or, guilty in defence, be thus destroyed? (33-43)

In another play, Shakespeare compares a ravaging army to a pack of hounds, maddened for the hunt: “Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war” (Julius Caesar III.i.273).

Back to top

My heart is turning to ashes.

An anguished parent said this, waiting to hear whether her child was among the 172 passengers rescued after the sinking of the South Korean ferry Sewol (New York Times, March 17, 2014). More than 300 lives were lost. Most of the passengers were high school students on a field trip.

A heart in fear is like a burning coal. When hope runs out, it turns cold and lifeless. Knowing who said this and why, I feel the emotion behind this metaphor more than any other I can remember. It reaches across the barrier of a foreign language.

(Posted on FB June 26, 2014)