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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C’mon, it’s like a zipper!

– I-80 motorist to merging traffic

On a crowded freeway, when two lanes of traffic must narrow down to one, the cars may come together like the teeth of a zipper – two sides taking turns to open and fill spaces efficiently. The “teeth” are not like chomping teeth but like the teeth in the gears of a well-designed machine, such as a pocket watch.

But sometimes the traffic gets jammed, as zippers sometimes jam. Jamming occurs in traffic when some of the drivers see themselves as racehorses rather than gears, jockeying for position in a crowded field where one will come out ahead and the others…well, they’re losers. Clearly, putting racehorses together with gear teeth results in a mishmash, something like a log-jam, in which the benefits of competition and cooperation are both lost. It is bad to mix metaphors.

The word log-jam entered American speech by 1885 (or 1851), and registered in the national imagination as an image of colossal system breakdown by 1907, when the Springfield Weekly Republican reported that a legislative log-jam had at last been cleared in Congress. Traffic jam became a word around 1917. The zipper came to market in 1925 as a closure for boots, a quick and easy alternative to too many buttons.

Photo: Karl Stull

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I’ve got buns of steel!

– Student to fitness instructor Greg Smithey, 1985

The first baring of buns as a euphemism for buttocks came in the early 1960s. People needed a word that was neither vulgar nor clinical for a part of the body that was until then unmentionable in polite conversation. Context and the dome shape of a bakery bun made it clear which part of the anatomy was being referenced – in a coy, tittering way.

In short order, the metaphor became a dead metaphor (the reference to hamburger toppers faded away). Buns became an everyday synonym for buttocks in a new era, as ideas about the ideal body type for women shifted from soft and curvy to athletic – strong, hard, lean. Shape magazine began publishing in 1981.

In terms of imagery, buns of steel are the antithesis of bakery buns. No one is intimidated when bakery buns enter the room.

Photo: Karl Stull

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[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

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Up the ladder

As he has followed the siren song of his shiny modern gadgets of food preparation up the ladder of ease, man has lost something. – Marshal South, primitivist, Desert Refuge magazine (July 1942)

For Marshal South, the ladder of convenience is a slippery slope in reverse. We go up instead of down, but still fail to see the unhappy consequences of taking that first step. Upgrading from a fireplace to an electric stove, we celebrate not having to collect fuel each day, and little notice how we’ve lost the scents and flavors that come from local wood.

The slippery slope is a naturalistic metaphor, using gravity to explain why we keep taking the next steps. On South’s ladder, we ascend because of evil singing mermaids.

The idea of a ladder as a fast track to ruin is built into the military sense of escalation ­– as a series of steps that turn a minor conflict into all-out war. We escalate because the alternative to going up is backing down.

Photo: Bandelier National Monument by Daniel Mayer; Wikimedia

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Level playing field vs. bargaining table

1919 view of the unlevel field where Abner Doubleday and residents of Cooperstown, NY, invented town ball;


Without a level playing field, labor had little say or clout at the bargaining table. – Richard A. Hogarty, Leon Abbett’s New Jersey (2002)

A playing field and a bargaining table are both flat surfaces for adversarial encounters. You sit at a bargaining table to reach an agreement with an opponent (rather than settling differences by violence). On a level playing field, neither side has an unfair advantage. So the bargaining table and level playing field represent ideals of society – even if, for the sake of clean prose style, one should not ask readers to imagine them both in the same sentence.

The key difference between a bargaining table and a level playing field is that people in business actually sit at tables to bargain. Seldom do they take to a playing field for the sake of quarterly profits. Both are figures of speech: the playing field is a metaphor, and the bargaining table is metonymy.

Metonymy = meta + nym (changed + name)

  • The WHITE HOUSE said it would hold talks with MOSCOW.
  • The PEN is mightier than the SWORD.
  • Give them a big HAND, and lend me your EARS.

Metonymy is a nickname or shorthand form of reference, typically using an easy-to-visualize detail as an icon for something that is abstract or complex. In the examples, a building stands for a president’s administration and a city name stands for the Russian government; a writing tool stands for the expression of ideas in general, and a weapon stands for war; body parts stand for applause and attention. The figures in metonymy are always logically related to the subject they represent (bargaining table is literally where negotiations take place).

A metonym is an alternative name; a metaphor is a comparison.

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You’re a kite dancing in a hurricane, Mr. Bond.

This line from Spectre (2015) has a metaphor within a metaphor.

  • Outer metaphor: Bond is like a kite because he is a solitary figure being driven by powerful forces.
  • Inner metaphor: The kite is like a dancer because its actions seem graceful and free of earthly bounds.

Dancing is not the same as dangling, or being buffeted by hundred-mile-an-hour winds, so the two metaphors are not an exact fit. But the sense they make together is apparent: Mr Bond is both vulnerable and beautiful. Like a candle in the wind.

The Elton John/Bernie Taupin song “Candle in the Wind” was about Marilyn Monroe when it was first released in 1974. In 1997, John and Taupin saw a comparison between Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana and released a new version of the song, extending the metaphor to sales of 33 million copies.

Wind metaphors are of special interest because wind is invisible. We know it only by its effects.

  • Soaring birds “ride” the wind, like boats on a river.
  • Windmills “harness” the wind, as if it were a plough horse.
  • Willows bend with the wind and oaks stand against it, though their leaves may shiver.

In the Disney movie Pocahontas (1995), autumn leaves blow insistently across the screen to illustrate the “Colors of the Wind” theme music and perhaps the winds of change coming to America. In The Revenant (2015), wind-driven snow and debris remind us that as long as there is breath, there is life.

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Tug of war over coast comes to a head.

LA Times (January 21, 2016)

“Coming to a head” refers to a pimple or boil. It’s the least edifying of the origin-stories you might dream up for this expression – such as head on a beer, headwaters of a river, spearhead, etc. In a search of Google Books, the earliest uses are in medical/veterinary sources. The Farrier’s and Horseman’s Dictionary (1726) recommends a leather patch soaked in warm hog’s grease for a boil that comes to a head.

The mesmerizing image of an infection that has reached the stage where something must be done –can you leave a pimple unpopped? — was already in metaphorical use by 1730. In that year, A Complete Collection of State-Trials and Proceedings recorded testimony by a Mr. De la Rue, who said he would have reported fellow officers for treasonous talk “if it had come to a head.” Metaphorically, treason is an infection that must be lanced for the good of the body politic.

Returning to the LA Times headline, politics may be like a tug of war, but it’s hard to imagine how a tug of war comes to a head.

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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)

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Pouring oil on water or on fire

A longtime friend who moderates a web forum was talking with a fellow moderator about how to deal with online discussions that get overheated. The other moderator said: “I prefer to pour oil on troubled waters rather than adding fuel to the fire.”

If you wonder where the saying came from about pouring oil on troubled water, click here or copy the link to find a roundup of reports by Aristotle, Pliny, Ben Franklin, and Lieut. Wyckoff of the US Navy:

(Posted on FB June 12, 2014)

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