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


The conduit metaphor

People turn to the conduit metaphor in 70 percent of all discussions about how we communicate through language, according to linguist Michael Reddy. The conduit metaphor has four parts:

  • Communication = sending
  • Words = container that is sent
  • Intended meaning = thing put in the container
  • Received meaning = thing extracted by the listener or reader

The “gap” across which words are sent is important – the difference between the minds of the sender and receiver. The gap is the source of all misunderstandings and a lot of pain. It’s also where deception, creativity, and 88.5% of jokes come from.

If we lived in a world where sentences were not “containers” for ideas, we would certainly spend less time looking for hidden meanings in song lyrics. If communications were not so much “sent” as emitted, like pheromones (or even excreted, like spider silk), we might not take everything so personally.

Sci-fi movies about first contact help us consider alternatives to the conduit metaphor. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, an alien shows up speaking perfect proclamatory English, but in Close Encounters of the Third Kind there is a shared-knowing style of communication. The invited see an image of a mountain and discover wordlessly where to go. The musical sequence D-E-C-low C-G is the DNA for understanding everything. Arrival offers another unmechanistic view, owing a debt to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter House 5, in which Billy Pilgrim comes “unstuck in time.”

An episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (“Darmok,” 1991) features aliens whose language utterly befuddles the universal translator – because their vocabulary is based on metaphors.

Illustration: Garth Williams, from Charlotte’s Web;


Reddy, M. J. (1979). The conduit metaphor: A case of frame conflict in our language about language. In A. Ortony (Ed.), Metaphor and Thought (pp. 284–310). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Available online at

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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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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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“Slippin’ Jimmy” with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun.

— Chuck McGill, character on Better Call Saul (season 1, episode “Pimento”)

Respected, principled, meticulous, Chuck McGill is the opposite of his brother Jimmy, who earned the nickname “Slippin’ Jimmy” by finding an easy way around every rule. For Chuck, the law is sacred. When Jimmy of all people passes the bar, it’s a catastrophe for the profession.

Like a bull in a china shop. Like a fox guarding the henhouse. Like a loose cannon on the rolling deck of a wooden ship.

These “recipe for disaster” figures of speech are fun to play with. Like a dessert cart in a diabetes ward. Like a tree huggers’ convention in Cactus Gulch. Like…


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The plot thickens

In a quiet moment of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), M. Gustave wonders about the plot thickening and asks: “Is it a soup metaphor?”

The expression first appears in a 1671 comedy by George Villiers called The Rehearsal, where it means more developments are added to the storyline to make a play more interesting. So a plot thickens in the way a forest thickens – by having more trees per square foot. (You may remember Little Red Riding Hood, on her way to Grandma’s house, goes through a thicket.)

In contrast, the “thickness” of a soup refers to how runny the liquid is, not how many beans or noodles there are. To make a soup thicker, or more viscous, you use an ingredient that will absorb liquid, usually cornstarch or a butter-flour mixture (roux).

(Posted on FB June 20, 2015)