Drowning in metaphors

by Matt on August 6, 2008

in Writing

Ahh, New York Magazine. In Friday’s article The Low Road Warrior you find yourself getting swept up by a whirlwind of cries of political mudslinging. Be sure to head over to A Candid World if you want to cry foul about or heap praise upon the McCain Campaign’s new tact (and congratulate Ames on the sparkling new domain name). This being – in part – a writing blog, I feel compelled to point to something far more sinister than mere Presidential politics:

Geez, look at all of those metaphors!

Until last week, it was an open question which of these visions of McCain bore a closer relation to reality. But with the weeklong string of attacks uncorked by the Arizona senator and his people during Obama’s trip abroad and in its aftermath—some brutal, some mocking, but all personal and focused on Obama’s character—we now have an inkling of just how deep in the mud McCain and his people are willing to wallow in order to win in November: right up to their Republican eyeballs.

Thanks to some ambitious punctuation, the second sentence boasts at least 7 metaphors. 8 if you don’t count “deep in the mud” and “wallow” as the same image. The metaphor is such an important hub for our cognitive functions that its evil twin, the mixed metaphor, turns its head at every turn, often leading to stylistic train wrecks, especially in journalism.

After all, in fiction, a good editor will belittle a writer for mixing his metaphors. “Ha ha! McCain uncorked a string? Since when do you bottle string?” A journalist, however, recognizes the necessary lubrication a metaphor provides. The Economist Style Guide has an entire section dedicated to the metaphor, and it is telling that the writer acknowledges, but does not condemn, the overuse of tired phrases. The Economist’s advice is, simply, to be aware of what you’re saying, so you don’t drop a doozy like “This is an off-the-wall programme with a track record of cutting-edge humour, but on this occasion we appear to have overstepped the mark.”

Be precise! Or, as Zapp Branigan would say, “If we can hit this bullseye, all the dominos will fall like a house of cards…checkmate!”

You can’t heap blame the poor writer, though. Steven Pinker writes extensively about the role of metaphors in thought. If you find yourself delighted by cognitive linguistics, I highly recommend Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought. He spends hundreds of pages putting language under the microscope, examining it as every writer should: as a window to the mind’s machinery.

As for metaphors, it all boils down to one thing. Take them with a grain of salt.

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