[I]nvolving yourself in the life of a great liar…is a swan dive through a mirror into a whirlpool.

– WALTER KIRN, Blood Will Out (2014)

Behold Kirn’s triple metaphor – with three uncanny images in series. The notion of motion (falling through space) holds the images together. On the way down, the mirror reminds us of the backwards world of Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Saw There. Past the pane, a whirlpool swirls reality in yet another way – an aquatically plausible/psychologically inevitable end to a long, dangerous dive.

Triple metaphors are rare, and seldom elegant. Here is an example uttered by yours truly in the heat of discussion in January 2017:

We’re trying to unravel this puzzle with the wrong tools.

Next level: Is a quadruple metaphor possible in real-world English? Considering the swan in “swan dive” as an embedded metaphor, you could credit Kirn with a quad.

Photo: R.M. Stigersand at the 1948 Olympic Games, National Media Museum (UK) via Wikipedia

Back to top


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), http://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset58044_75-.html


Back to top

Gardening metaphors

Wallflowers, such as Erysimum cheiri, have been planted in European gardens since the 16th century but are typically seen clinging to a stone wall or cliff. When people started using “wallflower” to mean a woman who stayed on the sidelines at a dance (1820), they were making a pretty metaphor, a gardener’s metaphor. When non-gardeners picked up the term, so to speak, never having seen a wallflower, the expression lived on but the metaphor died.

(Since a metaphor cannot in fact die, the term “dead metaphor” must be … er, a meta-mortaphor.)

“Urban blight” is another gardening metaphor that has turned into mulch. The head of a Detroit economic task force recently told the press: “Blight sucks the soul out of anyone who gets near it.” Blight is a botanical disease with dracula-like tendencies. (New York Times May 27, 2014)

(Posted on FB June 29, 2014)

Pretty as a picture

As Professor Marvin Mudrick (UCSB) once remarked, it is strange that we say: “She’s pretty as a picture.” Shouldn’t the picture be as pretty as the girl?

Not if you’re a follower of Plato. He said all beautiful things in this world are imperfect copies of an ideal. The ideal is universal and eternal. The ideal beautiful girl, for example, has large, wide-set eyes…

Oops. The links I planned to use for imagery are not displaying as expected. So google them for yourself: Disney’s Ariel, Jasmine, and Belle, illustrating that the ideal beautiful girl has wide-set eyes, a vaguely defined nose, and a pointy chin to complete an egg-shaped face.

(Posted on FB June 23, 2014)

Lobby of a cheap hotel, 1930s

At one o’clock in the morning, Carl, the night porter, turned down the last of three table lamps in the main lobby of the Windermere Hotel. The blue carpet darkened a shade or two and the walls drew back into remoteness. The chairs filled with shadowy loungers. In the corners were memories like cobwebs.

– Raymond Chandler, opening of the short story “I’ll Be Waiting”

How light retreats from a room – an interesting challenge for a writer. Notice in the last two sentences that the literal and imagined weirdly switch places. The loungers aren’t shadowy, they ARE shadows. There are memories in the corners like cobwebs, but probably some real cobwebs too.

(Posted on FB June 21, 2014)

More to “corn” than meets the ear

In a 1993 episode of Seinfeld, Kramer gets a massage and reports:

I am looser than creamed corn.

The line gets a laugh, but it’s not obvious why. Corn is neither loose nor tight.

Maybe it was the timing. Or maybe “creamed corn” is one of those sayings that is irresistibly funny because it’s so unexpected (“Wanna buy a duck?”).

Or maybe a mental picture of creamed corn – its color, consistency — is linked in the popular imagination to another topic that always draws guffaws. Diarrhea, the standup comedian’s unfailing friend.

“Looser than creamed corn” might thus be described as a metaphor by subliminal association – or a back-door metaphor.

(Posted on FB June 16, 2014)

Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man

Once I stopped fulminating over how silly it was to ask a tambourine man to play a song, I began to reconsider the song’s “smoke rings of my mind” image. Today it looks like the best of all those “of my mind” metaphors. After all, thoughts are insubstantial like smoke. They spread, ramify, and fade. The smoke implies a smoker who, in the song, is both a thinker and an observer of himself thinking. And what he thinks about smoke rings is — they are a portal that can “take me disappearing.” Poof!

Most “of my mind” metaphors in pop lyrics fall into three categories.

  1. The mind is a house decorated with pictures (memories): Vernon Oxford, Dolly Parton, Vanilla Ninja, Jennings and Keller.
  2. The mind is a refuge where the hidden self resides: Paul Simon, Beth Hart.
  3. The mind is an unknown territory where fearful possibilities lurk: Dylan (1987), Wallflowers, Anouk.

Notable exception: In “Windmills of Your Mind,” the most meta of meta-metaphorical songs, the mind is a vortex of vortices.

"Of My Mind" in Pop Lyrics

(Posted on FB June 11, 2014)

Back to top