October 29th, 2012 .

Block that Metaphor

Max Morden

An old chum of mine, a lawyer, recently sent me an email to say hello. He referred to some of our friends who were beginning to retire. “That idea rather scares me,” he said. “I’d like to buy the farm in harness (to mix metaphors), but not quite yet.”

A metaphor is a word or expression used to describe something other than what it usually describes. Buying the farm, for example, is a figurative way to describe dying. And dying in harness is a figurative way to describe dying while actively engaged in work.

Metaphors are an effective way to get a point across, and sometimes create memorable images. However, when mixed together – “I’d like to buy the farm in harness” – they create a muddle.

The New Yorker magazine runs a regular feature called “Block that Metaphor,” which reprints mixed metaphors from other publications. Here’s an example from the October 15 issue, reprinted from the Israeli News Source Haaretz:

“Whether he likes it or not, that problem is already nearing boiling point. But two weeks ago, the Jerusalem District Court supplied him with a ladder. Now, the prime minister must decide whether he wants to use it to climb down from the ramp, or to climb up, and gamble with what is left of Israel’s relations with the Muslim world.” As you can see, there are so many images here that the reader is left bewildered.

The other danger in mixing metaphors is getting it slightly wrong. An example is Barack Obama’s famous quip in his debate with John McCain, where he said: “Senator McCain suggests that I’m green behind the ears.” Of course, he was mixing up the expression wet behind the ears and the word green, which are both sometimes used to mean “inexperienced.”  Still, listeners were left wondering: “Did I hear that right?”

It’s good to be colourful when you write, but you don’t want to be too colourful. Unless of course, you’re Rush Limbaugh, who is reported to have said: “I knew enough to realize that the alligators were in the swamp and it was time to circle the wagons.”



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