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.


Dancing with Mr. Arbuckle was “like floating in the arms of a huge donut.”

– Louise Brooks (actress), quoted in Gary Krist, The Mirage Factory (2018)

Donuts don’t dance and don’t have arms. However, they are round and can encircle. And if it seemed to Miss Brooks that she was floating weightless in Fatty Arbuckle’s arms, it would have been because he was famously light on his feet – able to do somersaults and backflips despite the roundness of his figure.

Setting its complications aside, the simile is simple enough.

Fatty Arbuckle = donut

A donut is an icon of gluttonous overeating (as seen for decades on The Simpsons). Public fascination with the scandal that ended Arbuckle’s career as a comedian in silent movies (after the death of an actress at a wild Hollywood-style party) was intensified no doubt by the imagery in mental movies of his corpulence in orgiastic scenes of gratification of the flesh.

Dramatic imagery (imagery that acts out a story) is the essence of metaphor.

It is like a barber’s chair that fits all buttocks…

– William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well (II.ii.16)

V0019682 A barber's shop: the central figure is a man seated, swathed

Chairs in figurative language are usually imagined without reference to the sitter’s anatomy – as in throne, seat of power, committee chair, etc. Seen as a bearer of buns, a chair loses dignity.

In Gulliver’s Travels, Lemuel Gulliver makes a couple of chairs (like cane chairs) from hair trimmings of the giant queen of Brobdingnag. Then he refuses to sit in the chairs: “I would rather die a thousand Deaths than place a dishonourable Part of my Body on those precious Hairs that once adorned her Majesty’s Head” (part II, ch. VI).

Charles Dickens takes a lustier view in The Pickwick Papers, recounting a dream in which a chair comes to life. The smutty-minded chair boasts that “hundreds of fine women have sat in my lap for hours together. What do you think of that, you dog, eh!” (ch. 14, “The Bagman’s Story”).

Sticklers may point out the Swift and Dickens examples are transformational uses of imagery rather than metaphors – a fair objection, bringing us to one more buttocks-on-chair similitude, from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951):

That guy Morrow was about as sensitive as a toilet seat.

Illustration: A Barber’s Shop, aquatint etching by T. Rowlandson after W.H. Bunbury; Wellcome Library

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She will laugh at my mighty sword.

— Randy Newman, “A Wedding in Cherokee County”

The troubling thing about metaphors for the male member and, by extension (ahem), for sex is their lack of exhilaration and gladness. It’s always a tool – nailing, screwing, drilling, tapping. Where’s the joy we hear in the language of sports – when a ball drops sweetly through the hoop? Swish. Or when it rockets into the net. Go-o-o-o-o-o-o-oal!

Pop music spends a lot of time and breathless energy on how good good-lovin’ feels and yet has little more of metaphor to show than:

Rubbing sticks and stones together makes the sparks ignite. –“Afternoon Delight” (1976)

Which is at least more focused on pleasure than puncture.

The “mighty sword” metaphor from Randy Newman casts light on the fear that is the flip side of penis-tool imagery. Behind bravado, you always find a fear of appearing ridiculous. The specific fear in “A Wedding in Cherokee County” is premature ejaculation: “I will attempt to spend my love within her…” Timing is key for “skyrockets in flight.”

And though he is fearful and thus defensive (pointing out she has her faults too), the protagonist in “A Wedding in Cherokee County” loves his bride to be, and knows he would be worse off without her. As God says in another Randy Newman song, remarking on the crazy way we humans turn torment into adoration: “That’s why I love mankind.”

Lyrics to “A Wedding in Cherokee County”:

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Kiss from a rose

Though Guns N’ Roses got their name from two precursor bands – L.A. Guns and Hollywood Rose – everyone knows guns are phallic symbols and roses are yonic symbols. In mythology, the rose was sacred to Aphrodite and Venus. Later, the white rose became a symbol for the Virgin Mary. The metaphor was both anatomical and spiritual, and its sexual-ethereal duality is reaffirmed each year by myriad delivery vans on Valentine’s Day.

One of the most popular books of the Middle Ages was Le Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose), an allegory of the do’s and don’ts of courtly love. A hopeful lover finds the Rose in a garden, guarded by Chastity. The lover tries to win a kiss from the Rose, but she has multiple identities. Sometimes the Rose is a woman, sometimes the Rose is the emotion Love, and in one scene the Rose is a vagina approached by the lover with his pilgrim’s staff upraised.

Seven centuries later, Seal won Grammys for a song with this line:

I compare you to a kiss from a rose on the gray.

With its ethereal melody and allegorical lyrics (the gray is the gray ocean, representing the bleakness of life before the kiss), the song feels like a throwback – to a time when troubadors plinked lays and rondels on lutes. The sexual side of the sexual-ethereal duality appears in the song’s first line as a phallic “graying tower on the sea.” The romance of the rose continues.

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A pole in a river

In Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Mistress Overdone sees a man being hauled away to jail. She asks what the charge is against him, and the reply is: “Groping for trouts in a peculiar river” (I.ii.89). “Peculiar” in this context means “particular,” and the reference to fishing is a roundabout way of saying the man put his pole where he should not have done.

Oh, Will, sometimes you’re just nasty.

(Posted on FB June 9, 2015)

Belle on wheels

I’ve got a brand new pair of roller skates. You’ve got a brand new key.

I think that we should get together and try them on to see.

— Melanie, “Brand New Key” (1971)

Melanie’s coy lyric is an example of a metaphor whose wording “fails” on purpose. When the literal meaning doesn’t make sense (or seems not to tell the whole story), you go looking for a figurative meaning.

(Posted on FB June 15, 2014)