New Hampshire result clogs up moderate lane for Democrats

– Reuters (February 12, 2020)

It’s easy to visualize how a 100 yard dash would go awry if Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard, and Marianne Williamson all had their own lanes while Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar had to argue over whose turn it was to use the starting blocks. Lane-sharing in a foot race is contrary to the very idea of having lanes.

In traffic, lanes may be assigned by ethos: slow vehicles to the right, ride sharers to the left, with left-turners in a center lane. But these lanes are meant to form orderly lines, not facilitate a race. The ride sharers all get to where they’re going at the same time.

The race metaphor itself is a dubious description for presidential primary campaigns, where the goal is not to get anywhere first but to gain the most delegates. It’s more like a fishing derby than a marathon. Debates are like boxing, or a combination of boxing and gymnastics (Warren vaults ahead by gut-punching Bloomberg). The peloton in bicycle racing – a pack pursuing a frontrunner – might be the most apt of Olympic metaphors for political campaigns, with doping and dirty tricks being part of the game.

Image: Karl Stull

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To have actual de-escalation diplomacy, don’t you need to have kind of off-ramps that both sides can kind of take baby steps in that direction to kind of develop good faith to show that things are ratcheting down…

– Anderson Cooper, Anderson Cooper 360° (January 6, 2020)

In war, you have an exit strategy. In a diplomatic crisis, off-ramps.

A war is like a party that has become tedious. With an exit strategy, you know in advance where the door is and what excuses you’ll offer. “It was so nice of you to invite us, but now we’ve met all our goals in coming. [Smiling, waving] Good night.”

But a diplomatic crisis is like an accident about to happen on a strange superhighway. For some reason, the superhighway has only one lane. A truck is coming from the other direction. To avoid a crash, you look for a well-paved excuse. “Oh, look, this exit has pie and coffee, and meeting rooms with negotiating tables.”

The same important principle underlies both metaphors: you need an excuse to get out of a war.

Photo: Missouri Department of Transportation

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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)

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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

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Like trying to drink water from a fire hose

– D. E. Rogers, “Some Musings on Medical Education” (1982)

Too much, too fast: the water is liquid but might as well be solid. It is undrinkable.

Water in a less energetic state represents knowledge in Norse mythology when Odin drinks from Mimir’s well. In British history, the scholar-king James I was said “to drink indeed of the true Fountain of Learning” (Wm Sanderson, Compleat History…, 1656).

Many teachers have noted that knowledge-water can’t just be poured in:

It would be wonderful if our guardian angel could open a sort of trap-door in our head and pour in even a small part of the knowledge…
The Liguorian magazine (1951)

The strangest of all knowledge-drinking metaphors was developed by Robert Browning in Aristophanes’ Apology (1875), based on an ancient Greek party game called kottabos. In Browning’s kottabos, you are inside a rolling ball that has two holes: one hole is called High and Right and the other Low and Wrong. Wine dribbles in through the holes as the ball turns, and if you position yourself to drink only from High and Right, then you are like Euripides. If you drink regardless of where the wine comes from, you are like Aristophanes and can:

…drink knowledge, wine-drenched every turn,
Equally favored by their opposites.
Little and Bad exist, are natural:
Then let me know them, and be twice as great
As he who only knows one phase of life!

Ordinary kottabos is simpler, requiring only that you toss your almost-empty goblet across the room at a target that does ding!

Image: Young man playing kottabos. Red-figure kylix, ca. 510 BC. Ancient Agora Museum in Athens, via Wikipedia

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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

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…it was just one of a number of black eyes the organization sustained in the run-up to this year’s Oscars, nearly all of them self-inflicted.

– Josh Rottenberg, “No thanks to the academy…” LA Times (February 24, 2019)

Black eye transitioned from medical to metaphorical injury in the early 1700s – notably in a tussle of two poets, where Colley Cibber taunted Alexander Pope about “the last black Eye I gave you.” Cibber had published a pamphlet ridiculing Pope – the verbal equivalent of a public thrashing – which must have incited gossip and embarrassment for days, like an actual black eye.

By the early 1900s, the personal black eye was supplemented by the group black eye. In 1913, an article in The Saturday Evening Post complained of unscrupulous growers who gave the entire farming fraternity a black eye. In the same year, the American Cloak and Suit Review lambasted penny-pinching manufacturers: “The entire garment industry will probably get a black eye, because of your over-conservatism.”

The group black eye gave rise to a variation – the self-inflicted group black eye (SIGBE) – in the late 1990s (e.g., in Jean Mater’s Reinventing the Forest Industry, 1997). In the early 2000s, news stories credited self-inflicted black eyes to the SEC, the US Army, UK security police, CBS, Ohio State University, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Major League Baseball, China, Biotech, Harley-Davidson, and others. At the 2019 Oscars, no one from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences came to the stage to thank everyone who made their SIGBE possible.

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Pope calls for concrete steps to stop abuse.

LA Times headline (February 22, 2019)

The steps metaphor – deriving from the path/journey/travel metaphor – is so well-worn the headline writer isn’t aware of its imagery and doesn’t consider that most papally commissioned steps are made of marble, not concrete. Or that there is a paradox in taking steps to stop.

Oddly, the word in the headline that is most loaded with meanings is the one devoid of imagery. Abuse in today’s English refers not only to pedophilia and other sex crimes but also to drug or alcohol addiction, wife beating, and name calling. Having such a wide range of meanings is only possible because the word abuse refers but does not describe. You don’t see betrayal, violation, or deceit – as in back-stabber, for example.

The word abuse is transparent. Or maybe it’s opaque.

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It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Though phrased like a simile, this expression is the opposite of metaphorical. Not only does it not involve an imaginative comparison, it denies the very possibility of comparison. Anything you can imagine has to be based to some extent on something you have seen or imagined before.

And yet, though it is not metaphorical, it isn’t literal either. When someone says – to pick an example at random – that North Korea will experience “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” the understood meaning is opposite to what the words literally say: that is, the fire and fury will be very like fire and fury the world has seen before, but with greater fieriness and furiousness than in the past two administrations. So like doesn’t mean “similar to”; it just means >.

Thanks to my friend Gary Karasik, who suggested “Like nothing you’ve ever seen before!” as a tagline for Metaphor Awareness Month.

Photo: Unknown, “Portrait of Something Similar to Nothing”

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Dustbin of history

The “dustbin of history” metaphor – does it mean history has a trashcan or history is a trashcan?

In My Time, and What I’ve Done with It (1874), humorist F.C. Burnand took the “is a trashcan” view, noting that few of us have time to “sift the rubbish of the dustbin of History on the chance of discovering the diamond of Truth.” In other words, everything that isn’t today – be it diamond or dross – is history. And history, as Henry Ford famously said, “is bunk.”

Four decades after Burnand (the earliest “dustbin of history” in a search of Google Books), Russia was having its 1776-like moment, and Leon Trotsky said to the Mensheviks who walked out of the 1917 Congress of Soviets: “Go to the place where you belong from now on – the dustbin of history!”

As a Communist, Trotsky had a special regard for history. History is the arena in which the inevitable rise of labor is played out. In addition, history is the enduring record of decisive events. History is like a museum where the diamonds are on display and the rubbish is in a metal can out back.

How galling it must have been to the Soviets when Ronald Reagan threw the metaphor back in their faces, predicting in a speech before the British House of Commons in 1982: “freedom and democracy will leave Marxism and Leninism on the ash heap of history.”

Photo: NY Department of Street Cleaning, circa 1900; collectorsweekly.com

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