At every point in the loom, sovereigns were thrusting in their shuttles, carrying the strand of a son or a daughter, and these, whizzing back and forth, were the artificial fabric that created as many conflicting claims and hostilities as it did bonds.

–  Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)

The fabric of society was once a fairly common expression, conveying the idea that the whole is something different from (and greater than) the sum of its parts – as with a soup or a Jaguar XKE or a well-told story. As pictured by the metaphor, a society gets its unity from an interlocking of crisscross strands, individuals each pursuing their own course of life.

Revisiting the metaphor, Tuchman reminds us that weaving has to be done at regular angles, in a pattern that makes sense, or the result is a tangle. The royal families of medieval England and France were marrying off their children to Danes, Germans, Spaniards, Italians, and Hungarians in catch-as-catch-can strategies to gain territory, alliances, or claims to thrones. The result was the Hundred Years War.

In the 20th century, a morass of alliances, secret agreements, and royal interconnections turned the Serbian independence movement into the hairball known as World War I.

Photo: Adapted by Karl Stull

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America has been looking for a better mistress, and now Nixon has discovered China.

– Nguyen Thieu, president of South Vietnam, 1965–1975

For Americans, the top metaphors of the Vietnam War were falling dominoes and the light at the end of the tunnel. We were there because we had to be, not because we wanted to. Our concerns were strategic, practical, strictly unromantic. Yet we did think of ourselves as the good guys, doing a good deed despite considerable sacrifice.

So it comes as a shock that the president of the democracy we saw ourselves as defending saw us, the United States, NOT as a knight in shining armor but as a rich old man infatuated with an exotic beauty on the cheatin’ side of town. Of course, Thieu had grown to manhood in a country that was colonized – by France, no less, the European capital of the woman on the side. It must have seemed to him that the way of the world was for the strong to use the weak as they pleased. As he saw it, France and then the US were pleased to use Vietnam as an overseas resort for forbidden appetites.

Was Thieu wrong? The facts of history are verifiable as facts. Their meaning is subject to interpretation, often a matter of which end of the metaphorical stick you were on.

Photo: Woman opium smoker in French Indochina (1915) via William Black/Pinterest

It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Though phrased like a simile, this expression is the opposite of metaphorical. Not only does it not involve an imaginative comparison, it denies the very possibility of comparison. Anything you can imagine has to be based to some extent on something you have seen or imagined before.

And yet, though it is not metaphorical, it isn’t literal either. When someone says – to pick an example at random – that North Korea will experience “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” the understood meaning is opposite to what the words literally say: that is, the fire and fury will be very like fire and fury the world has seen before, but with greater fieriness and furiousness than in the past two administrations. So like doesn’t mean “similar to”; it just means >.

Thanks to my friend Gary Karasik, who suggested “Like nothing you’ve ever seen before!” as a tagline for Metaphor Awareness Month.

Photo: Unknown, “Portrait of Something Similar to Nothing”

I prepared the way by congratulating him upon solving the Gordian knot of the Dutch difficulties by his keen judgment without the sword.

– Alvise Valaresso, Venetian ambassador to Britain (1622)

The story of the Gordian knot tells how Alexander the Great dealt with a challenge that had defied all comers for centuries: a knot so complicated it could not be untied. It was hard to know even where to begin, since both ends of the rope were hidden inside the knot’s coils. Alexander cut the knot with a stroke of his sword, and was credited ever after with innovative thinking.

It was a meathead’s solution, of course – like solving gridlock with an air strike.

A knot is one of humankind’s most elegant technologies, using the flexibility of rope, and its ability to turn back upon itself, to resist the force that would pull the knot apart. The harder the pull, the tighter the knot holds. It’s a very fit metaphor for the kinds of problems we face in an interdependent world. Ambassador Valaresso paid James I a high compliment in saying the king had found a way to lessen tensions without a shortcut to violence.

Photo: Monkey’s fist knot (tied with a metal weight inside to facilitate throwing that end of the rope, to an approaching boat, for example); wincingdevil.com

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Argument is war.

– George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (1980)

It often feels like war, with two sides attacking each other’s positions, using facts as ammunition, blowing holes in the other’s logic, giving ground when it’s strategic to do so. (But never admitting defeat.)

Lakoff and Johnson identify several core metaphors like “Argument is war” and list dozens of allied figures of speech – to illustrate how our understanding of the world may be shaped by the imagery in everyday language. Figures of speech prepare us to think in terms such as:

  • Ideas are food (food for thought, hard to swallow, etc.)
  • Love is madness
  • Time is a moving object
  • Big = important
  • Up = good

In a nutshell, their thesis is that language resorts to imagery when a topic can’t be examined directly or defined in concrete terms. We may not understand the stock market, but we can picture going up toward heaven as good.

These influential metaphors are “dead metaphors” (in George Orwell’s phrase), because we are usually not conscious of their imagery when we use worn-out expressions. It might be better to call them undead metaphors (zombie metaphors!), still walking around with their teeth sunk into our brains.

Illustration: Lady Macbeth and husband have a “spirited discussion” about the proper placement of knives; National Education Network (UK), http://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset58044_75-.html

 

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She promptly brought the King out of his dreams with a brisk and cordial tongue-lashing.

– Mark Twain, The Prince and the Pauper (1881), ch. 19

The farm wife asked the King to keep an eye on things in the kitchen, but he got distracted and all the food on the stove was burned; hence, the tongue-lashing. Tongue-lashing was still a new word when The Prince and the Pauper was published, but people had been comparing the tongue to a weapon for quite some time. As Christopher Ness observed in 1690, “Tongue-smiting is as smart as any hand-smiting.”

The poet John Milton and others complained about tongue-fencers, who pretended to rapier wit. The playwriting team of Beaumont and Fletcher cautioned against tongue-bolts, suggesting the mouth is like a crossbow (1622). Nathaniel Lee made the whip comparison in the tragedy Theodosius (1680): “And let thy lawless tongue lash all it can.”

By the early 1880s, Americans had also begun using the expression “shoot your mouth off.”

Illustration: From an 1822 advertisement for the Regent coach; janeaustenlondon.com

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Up the ladder

As he has followed the siren song of his shiny modern gadgets of food preparation up the ladder of ease, man has lost something. – Marshal South, primitivist, Desert Refuge magazine (July 1942)

For Marshal South, the ladder of convenience is a slippery slope in reverse. We go up instead of down, but still fail to see the unhappy consequences of taking that first step. Upgrading from a fireplace to an electric stove, we celebrate not having to collect fuel each day, and little notice how we’ve lost the scents and flavors that come from local wood.

The slippery slope is a naturalistic metaphor, using gravity to explain why we keep taking the next steps. On South’s ladder, we ascend because of evil singing mermaids.

The idea of a ladder as a fast track to ruin is built into the military sense of escalation ­– as a series of steps that turn a minor conflict into all-out war. We escalate because the alternative to going up is backing down.

Photo: Bandelier National Monument by Daniel Mayer; Wikimedia

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