The Other Side

Metaphor: A Virgin Field Pregnant with Possibilities


Sure, you expect to laugh at lists of crazy Engrish menu mistranslations on social media, “Braised Dork with Bamboo Gunfires,” not to mention episodes of The Three Stooges.

“Hang on!” you say. “What about the laugh lines in presidential debates?”

OK, fine, but there are plenty of funny things in unexpected places, too. Take, for instance, the Whatcom County ordinance that sets aside the entire county as a Sasquatch Refuge.

Gone looking for a laugh lately offline? Tip: Have you tried any print handbooks of English usage? These tsk, tsk collections from Fowler to Garner offer a trove of hilarious howlers to avoid, e.g., “Being old-fashioned, she never wore pants."

”The pettifoggers who write these manuals love to hate the dreaded “mixed metaphor.” That’s the nonsense you write after losing track of a metaphor’s literal meaning. You know, combos like “Her eyes narrowed to a gimlet stare, and she let him have it with both barrels.”

I laugh at these bloopers, at least when they’re someone else’s. Ever since my misspent ivory-tower salad days, I’ve been nuts about these bonehead expressions.

Sportswriters are past masters of the metaphorical hodgepodge. Sports-page macédoines can end up as what the French unappetizingly call a “potpourri,” literally, a rotten pot. Put that in your pipe and smoke it! 

Back in the 1940s, the New Yorker Magazine humorist Frank Sullivan wrote a classic send-up of baseball clichés. You’d have to be deaf not to see that all the sportswriters’ metaphors of 80 years ago still run amok in baseball journalism. “The home team won” could be written in two dozen figurative versions, “they nip, top, wallop, trounce, rout, down, subdue, smash, drub, paste, trip, crush, curb, whitewash, erase, bop, slam, batter, check, hammer, pop, wham, clout, zero, and blank the visitors.” It still is.

Which means there have always been plenty of figures of speech in the sportswriters’ thesaurus to lay a hand on in a pinch.

Alas, since the somnambulant Cleveland Indians updated their mascot to the woke “Guardians” a couple of years ago, we miss out on fevered brain freezes like “Indians Scalp Tigers.” In any case, we will always have, if not Paris, gems like “Red Sox Whitewash Blue Jays,” and “Marlins Hammer Astros, Rocket into First Place.”

Summer before last here in the Northwest, we thrilled to “Mariners Sail Path Out of Playoff Desert with Wind-aided Walk-off Four-Bagger.”

Self-help gurus, politicians, business pundits, students and Facebook groups should feel no shame at failing to scale the heights of such depths.

Even sportswriters have to stand back with jaws akimbo at the corporate HR consultant’s advice, “Don’t let your comfort zone fence you in.”

We’ve all had fun with the unique verbal purées Yogi Berra cobbled together when he was a star on the baseball diamond. “A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.” Forget “A specter is haunting Europe!” Karl Marx would have given his eyeteeth to have hatched such a phrase to put economics in a nutshell it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to understand. 

But then, sports have always been a cascade budding with metaphors. What pinnacles of leadership could ever rival the no-nonsense authority of the legendary pigskin coach who was seen to have barked, “OK, everybody. Line up alphabetically by height!”

Politicos get us all roweled up into a coma with gems like “We must not let ourselves be stampeded into stagnation,” and complain, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid of her policy waffles,” when their uphill campaigns go south.

Asleep-at-the-wheel business writers go off the deep end of the beaten path cranking out nuts-and-bolts management pearls like, “Supervisors need to keep their eyes on younger workers with a fine-tooth comb,” or train wreck dumpster fires like, “Elizabeth Holmes hit a home run with her elevator pitch.” You just can’t make heads or tails out of these headscratchers.

A student 40 years ago gifted me relief from the tedium of my bleary-eyed grading when he wrote, “Mexico is at the apex of its tether.”

Cloudy days and the brief sunlight hours of winter make it challenging for us to tell night and day apart, but not to worry, even ethics writers struggle with the distinction: “At the end of the day, you have to face yourself in the mirror the next morning.”

Leave it to a Facebook commenter to blend our sterling rustic character into a blood-and-sap Unhappy Hour margarita: “Most people on the Key Peninsula have rock-solid morals, but anymore our lifeblood is being sapped by urban values.”

And speaking of margarita, the Spanish word for both pearl and daisy, it’s a slam dunk to make metaphor slurries in the brain’s Meta-phor-A-Matic when you don’t know a word’s original meaning. Let’s not cast daisies before swine or drink a watermelon pearl at the new restaurant in Home.

Emerson, from the soapbox of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations,” thought that all language is “fossil poetry made up of images, which have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.”

It’s hard enough to avoid Osterizing all those poetic fossils in English, but jiminy cricket, the imported ones! How not to make a hash of things? From redundancies like “the big Rio Grande River,” to the anatomical confusion of, “as the ice thawed in their tête-à-tête, his knee touched hers,” or the social class mix-up of “Don’t be so bourgeois! Noblesse oblige is old hat.”

And then there are clichés — but don’t look under that rock and push my buttons!

Dan Clouse lives in Lakebay.