Idyllic follies never last, my little Chauvelin. They come upon us like the measles and are as easily cured.

– Baroness Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905)

People hardly ever say “like the measles” anymore – first because this childhood ailment died out after the 1990s, thanks to vaccines, and second because it has come bounding back, thanks to fear of vaccines.

As the 1905 quotation shows, measles was once regarded as a childhood rite of passage – an unpleasant experience but not long-lasting. Measles was nothing next to other infectious diseases that were rampant in cities back then, such as whooping cough, typhoid, cholera, tuberculosis, and the flu, which killed 50 million people in the outbreak of 1918.

Measles kills at the rate of one or two per thousand infections. For the US, that’s only a few dozen dead children per year when measles goes unchecked.


Saying goodbye is kind of like pulling a Band-Aid off the hairy part of your arm.

Playgirl (1977)

The Band-Aid, invented in 1920, is a classic example of how solving one problem may create another. The quick-and-easy bandage protects a small wound against infection, but after the wound is healed the wearer must choose: peel off the adhesive flaps slowly, uprooting arm hairs one at a time, or rip away with one yank?

How do you like your pain: in a slow progression of predictable agony? Or in a flash of torment followed by dazed shock? Opinion is divided, along the same lines as in the swimming pool conundrum. Some prefer to dip a toe in the water and immerse gradually. Others dive in.

The Playgirl quote is interesting for its frank wording (hairy-arm references were rare back then) and for the assumption that saying goodbye is not necessarily an emotional wound but rather an event to be expected in a life that spans many relationships.

Photo: Ellen Limeres

Argument is war.

– George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (1980)

It often feels like war, with two sides attacking each other’s positions, using facts as ammunition, blowing holes in the other’s logic, giving ground when it’s strategic to do so. (But never admitting defeat.)

Lakoff and Johnson identify several core metaphors like “Argument is war” and list dozens of allied figures of speech – to illustrate how our understanding of the world may be shaped by the imagery in everyday language. Figures of speech prepare us to think in terms such as:

  • Ideas are food (food for thought, hard to swallow, etc.)
  • Love is madness
  • Time is a moving object
  • Big = important
  • Up = good

In a nutshell, their thesis is that language resorts to imagery when a topic can’t be examined directly or defined in concrete terms. We may not understand the stock market, but we can picture going up toward heaven as good.

These influential metaphors are “dead metaphors” (in George Orwell’s phrase), because we are usually not conscious of their imagery when we use worn-out expressions. It might be better to call them undead metaphors (zombie metaphors!), still walking around with their teeth sunk into our brains.

Illustration: Lady Macbeth and husband have a “spirited discussion” about the proper placement of knives; National Education Network (UK),


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She will laugh at my mighty sword.

— Randy Newman, “A Wedding in Cherokee County”

The troubling thing about metaphors for the male member and, by extension (ahem), for sex is their lack of exhilaration and gladness. It’s always a tool – nailing, screwing, drilling, tapping. Where’s the joy we hear in the language of sports – when a ball drops sweetly through the hoop? Swish. Or when it rockets into the net. Go-o-o-o-o-o-o-oal!

Pop music spends a lot of time and breathless energy on how good good-lovin’ feels and yet has little more of metaphor to show than:

Rubbing sticks and stones together makes the sparks ignite. –“Afternoon Delight” (1976)

Which is at least more focused on pleasure than puncture.

The “mighty sword” metaphor from Randy Newman casts light on the fear that is the flip side of penis-tool imagery. Behind bravado, you always find a fear of appearing ridiculous. The specific fear in “A Wedding in Cherokee County” is premature ejaculation: “I will attempt to spend my love within her…” Timing is key for “skyrockets in flight.”

And though he is fearful and thus defensive (pointing out she has her faults too), the protagonist in “A Wedding in Cherokee County” loves his bride to be, and knows he would be worse off without her. As God says in another Randy Newman song, remarking on the crazy way we humans turn torment into adoration: “That’s why I love mankind.”

Lyrics to “A Wedding in Cherokee County”:

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Kiss from a rose

Though Guns N’ Roses got their name from two precursor bands – L.A. Guns and Hollywood Rose – everyone knows guns are phallic symbols and roses are yonic symbols. In mythology, the rose was sacred to Aphrodite and Venus. Later, the white rose became a symbol for the Virgin Mary. The metaphor was both anatomical and spiritual, and its sexual-ethereal duality is reaffirmed each year by myriad delivery vans on Valentine’s Day.

One of the most popular books of the Middle Ages was Le Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose), an allegory of the do’s and don’ts of courtly love. A hopeful lover finds the Rose in a garden, guarded by Chastity. The lover tries to win a kiss from the Rose, but she has multiple identities. Sometimes the Rose is a woman, sometimes the Rose is the emotion Love, and in one scene the Rose is a vagina approached by the lover with his pilgrim’s staff upraised.

Seven centuries later, Seal won Grammys for a song with this line:

I compare you to a kiss from a rose on the gray.

With its ethereal melody and allegorical lyrics (the gray is the gray ocean, representing the bleakness of life before the kiss), the song feels like a throwback – to a time when troubadors plinked lays and rondels on lutes. The sexual side of the sexual-ethereal duality appears in the song’s first line as a phallic “graying tower on the sea.” The romance of the rose continues.

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My love speaks like silence.

Bob Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” is a contrarian love song, similar to Shakespeare’s “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” Where another poet might compare his love’s voice to heavenly music or birdsong, Dylan says:

My love speaks like silence,

Without ideals or violence.

She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful,

Yet she’s true – like ice, like fire.

Silence speaks louder than words when the talk is blather. As when lovers promise eternal devotion. Or revolutionists parse the fine points of manifestos. Silence is never false. It is real like the cold from ice or the heat from fire.

Note that Dylan does not say she is silent. Her speech is LIKE silence.

Ordinarily, we think of ideals as good and violence as bad. What they have in common is the intent to change “what is” (the real) into something else. Ideals are a construction of “what should be.” Violence is destruction of “what should not be.” For Dylan, both are kinds of untruth.

Paul Simon takes a different tack in “The Sound of Silence.” He sees hordes of people talking without saying anything, and being deluged with words they don’t bother to think about. The “silence” is the vacuity of meaning in all that noise. In contrast to Dylan, Simon seems to believe more words ARE the answer – if they create genuine understanding.

“Fools!” said I, “you do not know

Silence like a cancer grows.

Hear my words that I might teach you.

Take my arms that I might reach you…”

You can decide for yourself whether he was singing these lyrics “in character,” playing the role of yet another prophet who thought he had the answer, berating the masses as “Fools!”

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Love bites

“I love that woman. I love her more than sharks love blood.”

— Kevin Spacey in House of Cards, first episode

This shark metaphor, deliberately provocative, possibly “overshoots the runway,” saying more than the speaker intended about the nature and consequences of a ferocious passion. Then again, if you’re “that woman,” it might be just a little thrilling.

Notably, “jump the shark” (meaning: to do something spectacular because you are out of good ideas) is a metaphor for running out of passion.

(Posted on FB June 11, 2014)