We are preparing for the battle at the top of the mountain.

– Governor Andrew Cuomo (NY), March 31, 2020

The “mountain” Governor Cuomo had in mind was a statistical curve showing the distribution of COVID-19 cases – coming all at once or spread out over time. A very steep curve would hit the health care system like a tsunami, said ER management consultant Eric Holdeman (mrsc.org, March 24). President Trump questioned whether “mountain” was too tall a term.

You look at most places where that – you can call it the bump, you can call it the hill, you can call it the mountain, you can call it whatever you want – it’s very flat. (April 6)

At the same press briefing, President Trump saw “light at the end of the tunnel,” suggesting there could be rapid progress through the bump/hill/mountain. A couple of weeks earlier, epidemiologist Michael Mina was also thinking in terms of a tunnel: “We are flying blind through this tunnel at the moment, and we don’t know where we are in the epidemic curve” (LA Times, March 24).

Dr. Carlos del Rio of Emory University, a specialist in global health issues, cautioned there is still a considerable way to go back down after reaching the peak of Everest (CNN, April 8). Further imagery on “getting from here to there”:

This may be a marathon, not a sprint . – Tyler Falk (National Public Radio, March 6)

It’s not time to take your foot off the accelerator. – Dr. Anthony Fauci (White House COVID-19 Task Force, March 31)

The only regret we will have is if people cut the parachute before we land. – Gov. Gavin Newsom (CA) (March 31)

Looking ahead to the other side of the mountain, Governor Cuomo anticipated a program of antibody testing: “That is going to be the bridge from where we are today to the new economy” (April 8). A week later, he added:

We are bridge builders. That’s what we do. Sometimes literally, sometimes symbolically, sometimes metaphorically. (April 15)

Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

It’s a war. I view it as a – in a sense – a wartime president.

– President Donald Trump, March 18, 2020

“It’s a war” is the mother of all metaphors when people talk about disease. Patients, doctors, and fundraisers for charities vow to fight an “invisible enemy.” Who is the enemy? Mosquitos and bacteria might qualify with diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, but the most potent killers in societies like ours are heart disease and cancer, and the enemy is us – our own clogged plumbing and cells gone haywire. With pop-up viruses like COVID-19 and flu, the “enemy” is a protein blob, not a living thing in the usual sense: more like a self-propagating chemical than a bug.

Might as well declare “war” on lime scale or rust.

The war metaphor is first declared in primary school, where children learn the immune system is an army that attacks invaders with an array of specialized weapons – white blood cells, fever, and a flood of fluids. In action, the immune system could just as well be compared to a mob of villagers with pitchforks, torches, and too many tankards of ale – sometimes killing the patient along with the germ.

In the context of a life-threatening disease, such as cancer, the war metaphor is meant to affirm the value of a human life. Never surrender. The “fight” is stubborn resistance – against the pain of scorched-earth treatments like radiation and chemotherapy. Victory is a Korean standoff called remission.

In the context of a pandemic, “war” means casualties piling up in hallways and hospital staff under constant threat. Chaos and waste: 21st century diagnostic machines and not enough cotton swabs.

COVID-19 killed more Americans in three months than the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Korea. Throughout history, deaths from plague, smallpox, cholera, meningitis, and other diseases have far outrun military casualties. The “war against disease” is a tail wagging the dog.

Humans have the instinct for fight-or-flight, and we are fascinated by battle to the death, so the appeal of the war metaphor is understandable – even though most of our accomplishments and well-being arise from purposeful work: cleaning, patching, lacing, fencing, planting, pruning, digging, damming, etc. The cure for rust is preventive maintenance, not micro-ninja commandos equipped with tiny missiles.

Illustration: Immune system during flu season by Dan Page, Purdue University newsletter (January 15, 2020)

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, https://www.mtpr.org/post/blm-hearing-wild-horse-management-planned-billings

I want a new drug, one that won’t spill, / One that don’t cost too much / Or come in a pill.

– Huey Lewis, “I Want a New Drug” (1984)

From the long list of effects Huey does not want, it’s clear he doesn’t actually want a drug. What he wants is to “feel like I feel when I’m with you.” So this is a love song, an upside-down update of a Shakespearean sonnet. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Naw, that’s been done. Shall I compare thee to feel-good drugs (of which I have no personal knowledge but have heard about from others)?

Love is often compared to a temporary madness – as if it were caused by a psychotropic drug. That is the satire enacted in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when a few herbal eyedrops make Titania infatuated with a village idiot – and not just any village idiot but a village idiot with a donkey head.

In “Love Potion # 9” (The Clovers, 1959), a folk-pharmacologist mixes an elixir that smells like turpentine, looks like india ink, and produces cognitive and emotional disturbances:

I didn’t know if it was day or night.
I started kissing everything in sight.

Technical note: In the Huey Lewis song, “drug” is understood to be a metaphor only because of a simile (“like I feel when I’m with you”). It’s a curious combo: a metaphorical charge with a simile igniter.

Illustration: Library of Congress

Remember what the dormouse said: feed your head.

– Grace Slick, “White Rabbit” (1967)

The idea that knowledge is something you can eat like food goes back to the Garden of Eden, with the stipulation that some knowledge is better left on the Tree. In 1741, Isaac Watts insisted there was no merit in reading all day long, because food was worthless without proper digestion.

As a Man may be eating all Day, and for want of Digestion is never nourish’d; so these endless Readers may cram themselves in vain with intellectual Food, and without real Improvement of their Minds, for want of digesting it by proper Reflections. (Improvement of the Mind)

For most of us, digestion comes automatically after eating, no conscious effort required. So Watts may be right about the need for proper Reflections, but his comparison is “hard to swallow.” (See the index, Meta-failed images, for familiar expressions that seem to make sense but don’t.)

The idea that wisdom could be ingested conveniently in pill form took hold in the 20th century – when vitamins, antibiotics, and The Pill offered “better living through chemistry.” Aldous Huxley described instant access to enlightenment through mescaline (The Doors of Perception, 1954), and a few years later pop radio was celebrating the extraordinary mental experiences available through sublegal pharmacy: “One pill makes you larger, one pill makes you small.” Grace Slick’s lyrics drew on imagery from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), which included a cake with “Eat Me” spelled out in currants on top. But it was Slick, not the Dormouse, who advised feeding your head.

Photo: Adapted from Wikipedia

Her words and looks “were stabs of a poniard – stabs, did I say? – they were tearing with hot pincers, and scalding the raw wound with burning sulphur…”

– Walter Scott, Heart of Mid-Lothian (1818)

Psychological pain is often compared to torture, because most of us think psychological pain isn’t quite the same as physical pain. And it’s not. Pangs of a guilty conscience fly out the window the moment you stub your toe.

So descriptions of psychological pain often overcompensate. Stabbing is not enough to describe George Staunton’s regret and embarrassment; there must also be tearing with hot pincers. Add the after-burn of sulfur. And though these sensations are distinct and can each be described in detail, the metaphors demur. We are merely to understand Mr. Staunton was made to feel very, very uncomfortable.

Physicians nowadays routinely ask patients to rate their pain on a scale of 1 to 10. The scale is uncalibrated, so it might be necessary at times (post-surgery) to peg your answer to a metaphor: “My pain is an 8, like stabs of a poignard. Did I say 8? It’s more of a 9, like the tearing of hot pincers, with scalding sulfur.”

Illustration: It appears the man on the table is being waterboarded (see funnel). Torture chamber of the Spanish Inquisition, engraving by B. Picart, 1722. Wellcome Library no. 43213i

He’s not hurt much; I just winged him.

– Jackson Gregory, “Judith of Blue Lake Ranch” (1917)

In fact, Judith “winged” Trevor a couple of times: in the right arm with her first shot; after the second, his “left arm hung limp like the other.” The obstreperous Trevor was escorted off the ranch, and Judith went on with her breakfast.

It’s hard to imagine a gunshot wound being so lightly dismissed, even if it was to a mere “wing.” For a bird, a limp wing would amount to a death sentence. For a cowboy, in the days before doctors washed their hands and gave antibiotics, an infection could mean the same thing.

Yet the first OED example for “wing” in this sense is from a comedy, The Poor Gentleman (1802), by George Colman, in which the cantankerous Sir Charles complains about greenhorn hunters hitting everything but what they aim at: “What are the odds now, that he doesn’t wing me?”

Illustration: W. Herbert Dunton for “Judith of Blue Lake Ranch,” Everybody’s Magazine (vol. 37, 1917)

His face was as pitted as the moon.

– Amanda Coplin, The Orchardist (2012)

Some craters on the Moon are from meteorite impacts, others from volcanic eruptions. The pitting on the orchardist’s face is from smallpox, a disease of skin eruptions.

Smallpox manifests with a rash; the pimples burst and scab over. The scars are a literal record of having had the disease. In The Orchardist, they are the metaphorical mark of a survivor – someone who has endured catastrophe, and healed imperfectly.

People looking at the blotchy basins of the Moon, filled with dark lava, may see a face – like a lopsided jack o’lantern. That man in the moon has looked upon innumerable seasons of planting and harvest, myriad years of disaster.

Photo: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

This was not the first occasion on which I had encountered those outbreaks of stupidity, hatred and credulousness, which social groups secrete like pus when they begin to be short of space.

– Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (1955)

As an anthropologist, Levi-Strauss understood the underlying causes of friction between ethnic groups. As a Jew in France in 1941, he understood it was high time to get out of Europe. When a majority group feels deprived, minorities soon feel the pressure. Accusations, outrageous stories, and fear mongering spread like a rash across all zones of contact.

Migrants fleeing Europe – respectable citizens, who yesterday would have been welcomed as tourists – were treated as quasi-prisoners by border police, coming and going, at every port along the way. (Recall the opening of Casablanca, tracing complicated routes from Europe to Africa.) Even Levi-Strauss, a professor invited to teach at Columbia University, was detained at a camp in Puerto Rico for weeks and questioned by the FBI. They thought he might be a German spy. Stupidity, hatred, credulousness.

The contact lens for your ear.

– Advertisement for a miniature hearing aid

If this is your first time reading about a contact lens for the ear, you might wonder how a device to improve hearing can be like a device to improve eyesight. Hearing and seeing are both sensory experiences but not at all alike. Seeing a cello is not the same as hearing one.

So this is a comparison that, rather than explaining, works by demanding an explanation. Certain jokes use the same trick – for example, Ben Franklin’s assertion that houseguests are like fish. (They begin to smell after three days.) Metaphors are usually meant to clarify but sometimes they mystify on purpose – so the audience will be curious and pay close attention.

Lyric hearing aids – much smaller than conventional hearing aids – are implanted inside the ear, so they are invisible to the public, like contact lenses. People judge you to be younger and more attractive.when you are not wearing bulky apparatuses, such as bifocal glasses or boxy earplugs.

Metaphor is a contact lens for your mind.