The experienced catcher can help the pitcher by “framing” the plate, especially the border-line strike.

– Jeff Mincey, “Crash Course for Catchers,” Scholastic Coach (vol 52; 1982)

In art school, students learn not to look at the edge of the canvas as an absolute border.

In umpire school, the rectangle of the strike zone is an absolute border, but its exact location is a matter of judgment and even consultation. The catcher can influence an umpire – for example, by setting up with the mitt at the “low-outside corner.” Perpendicular lines sprout by implication from the catcher’s mitt, proposing a frame for the strike zone. If the pitch hits the glove, without obvious reaching by the catcher, the umpire may assent to the pictured zone and call a strike.

This influence does not deceive the umpire, say players willing to comment. They also say a catcher who is good at framing can earn a dozen strikes per game that might otherwise have gone the other way. Are umpires being bamboozled, milked, shaken down, seduced? They are being persuaded by a picture inside an imaginary frame.

In a crime drama, “framing” someone means rearranging evidence to make an innocent person appear guilty. This kind of framing clearly crosses a boundary between interpretation and deceit, offering a mental picture that is intentionally contrary to fact. Those last nine words could also describe a metaphor.

But a metaphor is always understood to be imaginary. It doesn’t deceive because it doesn’t make sense as fact: e.g., this month just flew by.

Image: Part of John Lennon’s face is excluded by the artist’s placement of the edge. Revolver album cover via Wikipedia

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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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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,

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We had a leash of hares, which being skinned and cleaned were impaled on withers and placed at the fire to roast, where they looked like three martyrs flayed alive, and staked.

– Frank Marryat, Mountains and Molehills (1855)


Marryat was an English gentleman who came to California for a year of hunting. He kept a journal and drew illustrations. A metaphor is a kind of illustration, using words to create a mental picture. In this case, the simile “like three martyrs” tells us how to see a picture in the picture – of three human beings burnt at the stake. For modern readers, who buy meat in packages at grocery stores, it is a shock to see the resemblance between a bunny and a man when hung up on a stick. It is a further shock to visualize, with a culinary eye, the cooking of Christians by other Christians (for the sake of differences interpreting biblical texts, written in languages that were native to no one on either side).

A hunter necessarily develops a sense of detachment from the animals he kills. Especially when the killing is for sport. And yet he may think imaginatively about his quarry, attributing courage or cunning to an animal fighting for its life. At one point, Marryat imagines four or five does awaiting the return of the buck he has killed. They go to the stream at dusk, as always, but the buck does not rejoin them. Marryat offers up a hunter’s truism, which seems to empathize but is likely just a hackneyed saying: that the real cruelty is to shoot at too long range and allow the fleeing animal to die slowly of a wound.

In hunting parlance, a leash is a set of three, especially three greyhounds, bucks, foxes, or hares. The withers of a horse or other animal is the area of the spine at the base of the neck. Impaling the hares at the withers forces them into an upright posture.

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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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Watch the order as they load the sled. It’s like layering cold cuts into a sandwich, John. It takes maximum efficiency.

– Bree Schaaf, color commentator on 4-man bobsled at the Pyeongchang Olympics (2018)

This is a simile meant for Subway employees. They work on a fast-food assembly line (no wasted motion). And the sandwiches they produce resemble a bobsled. But most of us will have a hard time seeing the urgency – much less the “maximum efficiency” – in everyday sandwichery.

We also have a hard time appreciating the athleticism, performance, skill, and strategy in 4-man bobsledding – which, of course, was the point Schaaf wanted to make. To the untrained eye, bobsledding looks like drinking buddies out for a Saturday night prank, joyriding somebody’s trashcan down an icy hill in Vermont. There they go: Ham, Cheddarhead, Turkey, and Monterey Jack.

Photo: US Army team at 2010 World Cup trials 2010, by Tim Hipps, FMWRC Public Affairs

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Race against time

You can’t race against time – any more than a runner can race against the racetrack. A fish cannot outswim the sea, nor can a bird fly above the atmosphere.

However, it is possible to imagine a race against the clock. On the day Roger Bannister ran a mile in under four minutes (May 6, 1954), he was circling the quarter-mile track faster than a clock’s second hand sweeps around its circle. Even so, though Bannister beat the clock, he did not outrace time. Crossing the finish line, he was 3:59.4 minutes older than when the race started.

Consider an alternative scenario:

Time is a train, heading to Buffalo.

A runner in the caboose advances from car to car toward the locomotive, moving toward Buffalo faster than time itself. The runner climbs onto the cowcatcher in front and, with a hypothetical leap, arrives in Buffalo before the train of time – an achievement of infinite phenomenological significance but, alas, a very brief moment of victory (even Bannister got to hold his record for 46 days).

Is time like a train? Or is it more like a river, which is already joined to the sea before any boat can begin racing downstream?

In a search of Google Books, the earliest instance of “race against time” occurs in 1788, when the author of The Annual Register, Or a View of the History, Politics, and Literature for the Year, promises he will write unhurriedly.

Photo: Karl Stull

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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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Of course

Course comes from Latin cursus, meaning a race, a racetrack, or a path for things that run or flow, like a river. A ship can follow a course, extending the image of a set route to the open sea. Earth follows a gravitationally determined course through space as it orbits the Sun. But when a student “takes a course,” the term becomes fully metaphorical – no longer involving literal travel, only progress on a “path” of study.

By the time we get to saying “Of course” to questions like “Will the sun rise tomorrow?” the original image of a racetrack has disappeared. All that’s left is our certainty about where we are headed.

English speakers have been saying “of course” since the 1540s. Before that, we said “by course.”

Photo: A track at Ursinus College; Wikimedia

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