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”


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;

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Golden parachute


A parachute made of gold instead of silk would weigh as much as a family fridge and be worth about $6 million.

Consider the Icarus Omega 189, a typical main-canopy parachute, which folds into a 458 cubic-inch pack. If a parachute were made of gold foil and folded into that pack (gold = 0.7 lbs/cu in.), it would weigh 321 lbs. With gold at $1,280 per ounce (14.58 troy ounces per pound), your golden parachute would be worth $5,990,630.40.

Is that enough to compensate for being pushed out of a high window of the corporate tower? Seriously, you should demand a platinum parachute.

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Downhill from here — is that good or bad?

“All downhill from here” means the hard work of climbing is over and the easy part of a hike or bike ride is about to begin — UNLESS it has a quite opposite meaning, based on a different metaphor.

Sometimes people say “downhill from here” meaning things are at a peak of happiness right now and can only go in one direction: down into the valley of despond.

Because there are two potential meanings, you have to discover what the speaker intends from context. The imagery contributes nothing. This metaphor, or rather these two competing metaphors, have gone south…in the sense that south = down, as on a wall map.

(Posted on FB June 29, 2015)

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Bargaining chip

The term bargaining chip first appeared in 1945, a year of many treaties and negotiations. Negotiations are often compared to the game of poker, because a player can win by bluffing or seeing through an opponent’s bluff. The problem with bargaining chip as a metaphor is: there is no bargaining in poker. It’s winner take all.

Chips increase the value of the pot, and a player might use a stack of chips to frighten others out of the hand (“too rich for my blood”). But the purpose of a bargaining chip is always to keep others at the table so they will agree to terms.

In a successful negotiation, one side may win. In a negotiation where one side walks out, both sides lose.

So bargaining chip is a befuddled metaphor, one that invokes an image that can’t be imagined.

(Posted on FB June 21, 2015)

A double-edged sword cuts both ways

But not in the way we usually mean. Usually, this expression means:

  • Two opposing sides are both affected (honesty cuts both ways)
  • There are both good and bad effects (unlimited credit increases your spending power but also increases debt)

However, there is no “mixed blessing” in being cut by a real double-edged sword, which is designed to inflict as much damage as possible with a single thrust (two fatal cuts for the price of one). Nor is a double-edged sword supposed to affect both parties equally. In a stabbing transaction, the person at the pointy end of a two-edged sword feels the full effects of both cuts.

(Posted on FB June 18, 2015)

A curvy model of straightness and strength

To have backbone is to stand up for your principles, regardless of threats or lack of support from others. It is to be straight and rigid when others are bending before the wind of prevailing opinion. However, there is nothing straight or rigid in the anatomy of a real backbone. Its interlocking toggle-toy construction is for flexing. So far from being straight, the spinal column undulates through four major curves.

When people talk about backbone, they are wishing for the moral complexities of life and politics to be resolved in a form that is simple, clear, and strong. What they want, osteologically, is more like a femur than a backbone.

Image: “From the Tiger’s Mouth,” Official blog of Fung Loy Kok Taoist Tai Chi:

Image: “From the Tiger’s Mouth,” Official blog of Fung Loy Kok Taoist Tai Chi:

Technical note: “Backbone” in this sense is figurative language but not a metaphor since it does not involve a comparison. It is closer to a synecdoche (sin EK duh key), or an image that uses a part to stand for the whole. For example, in “Achilles led a thousand spears into battle,” spear stands for a fully equipped infantryman.

(Posted on FB June 15, 2015)