…hunger swallows all other feelings.

– William Lewis Manly, Death Valley in ’49 (1894)

A too-clever writer might have said “devours.” But Manly was educated on a frontier farm and had few literary pretensions.

On his way to the Gold Rush, he hired on as a wagon driver with a group that tried a southern route around the Sierra Nevada. When the wagons broke down and food ran short, the group sent Manly ahead to find help. He walked across Death Valley, over the Panamint Mountains, and across the Mojave Desert to Los Angeles, where he loaded up supplies and returned to the stranded wagon train. They were still alive.

Manly noticed that “something” disappears in people who are desperate for food. They have a frightened, distant, menacing way of looking at one another – as rivals, potential threats, or weaklings. The look was “devoid of affection, reason, or thought of justice.” Humanity is gone in a gulp.

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It’s like trying to detect a flea crawling in front of a car headlight, when the car is 100 miles away.

– William Borucki, quoted in “After discovering more than 2,600 planets, NASA’s Kepler space telescope is headed for retirement,” LA Times (October 30, 2018)

This extended simile is very NASA. Highly imaginative and mathematically precise.

A flea, 2mm in length, is about 1/100 the width of a headlight, just as Earth is about 1/100 the diameter of the Sun. A headlight seen from a mile away is a point of light. The Kepler telescope detected stars whose light was as faint as a headlight at 100 miles.

And thereby hangs a paradox. Metaphors and similes are figurative comparisons. As “figures of speech,” they are colorful and offer insight or impact but are not supposed to be taken literally. Being precise about phenomena that are wholly made up (no one is trying to detect fleas on headlights at great distances) puts us in a world of … well, science-fiction.

As a refresher, here are more typical examples of metaphor and simile:

47 Ursa Major c was a needle in a haystack.

Detecting extrasolar planets is like finding a needle in a haystack

The first example is a metaphor, a descriptive statement that is literally untrue but meant to imply a comparison. The second example is a simile, a figurative comparison (literally untrue) in which the comparison is made explicit, usually by use of like or as.

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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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Level playing field vs. bargaining table

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


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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Simile vs. metaphor


Consider three sentences, based on a comment by Morley Safer on the radio show Car Talk:

  1. The Renault in my garage is a crouching tiger.
  2. The Renault in my garage is like a crouching tiger.
  3. The Renault in my garage is like a BMW.

Sentences 2 and 3 both use the word “like” but are very different kinds of comparison. Sentence 3 is fact-oriented; 2 is imaginative, an example of figurative language.

Both 1 and 2 are figurative (they paint a picture). Sentence 2 is a simile because it uses “like” (or “as”) to make an explicit comparison. Sentence 1 is a metaphor because the comparison is implied rather than stated.

The difference between a metaphor and a simile is usually a minor matter, hardly worth noticing. In a few cases, a simile may come across as less passionate, more detached, because of the “like” or “as” phrasing:

METAPHOR: When I saw her, my heart caught fire.

SIMILE: When I saw her, it was as though my heart caught fire.

In a general discussion of figurative language, the term “metaphor” may encompass all such comparisons – similes as well as metaphors. During Metaphor Awareness Month, we keep an eagle eye out for figurative comparisons of any stripe.

Photo: Karl Stull; tiger from imgur.com/Kipling Did It Best

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In the state Capitol, [Governor Jerry] Brown has cultivated the perception that he’s the saucer that cools the otherwise liberal cup of hot Democratic politics…

— John Myers, “Brown’s job-approval rating,” LA Times (March 29, 2016)

New metaphors can come from anywhere, even crockery. Note that the cup is liberal rather than hot.

An ordinary saucer keeps a hot cup from scorching your tabletop. A political saucer insulates against something else – in this case, free-spending proposals of Democrats. The “hot” arrives later than expected but still works (describing contentious party politics rather than the original scalding cup).

Word order in English is sometimes supple.

Another Beverage Metaphor from the Past: New York Yankees outfielder Reggie Jackson was known as “the straw that stirs the drink.”

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Animals like plants

In Out of Africa, the “vegetative gracefulness” of giraffes inspires Isak Dinesen to imagine “long-stemmed, speckled gigantic flowers slowly advancing.”

There is something so right about “long-stemmed” I almost hear a chime when I read this sentence. The image is impressionistic rather than photographic (stems above their speckled flowers). It’s not a freeze-frame but a slo-mo montage.

Most hunters and prey, living close to the ground, have evolved for speed. Giraffes, tall as trees, are the most botanical of mammals.

(Posted on FB June 25, 2015)

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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, “I’ll Be Waiting” (1939)

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)

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