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

Advertisements

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 https://www.flickr.com/photos/familymwr/4383583231

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 circled the track faster than a clock’s second hand swept 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

Back to top

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.

Back to top

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

Back to top