Just one more on metaphors, really

Well, after exhausting all of you with my recent trilogy on metaphor-mixing, I thought I was done. But I also felt guilty that I didn’t quite live up to my promise of juicy and sufficiently current examples from The Economist. Let me atone herewith.

It must be this financial “meltdown”. It’s impoverishing all of us, and to add insult to injury (is that a metaphor?) it is making metaphor mixers out of hitherto presentable magazines. I will venture a theory about this below, but let’s have fun with–oh, let’s pick a random piece from our Finance section–the first two paragraphs, including title, rubric and chart caption, of this article: (As always, different metaphors in different colors)

Domino or dynamo?

Oct 9th 2008 | HONG KONG
From The Economist print edition

China is pretty well placed to cushion a global downturn

CHINA has become the main engine of the world economy, accounting for one-third of global GDP growth in the first half of this year. Will it keep humming? Compared with many other emerging economies, notably Brazil and Russia, which have recently suffered big capital outflows, China has so far largely shrugged off the global credit crunch. But there are signs that China’s economy is sputtering. Export volumes have slowed markedly; the growth of industrial production dropped to a six-year low in the 12 months to August; car sales fell by 6% in the same period; and China’s property boom seems to be turning to bust.

Some of the recent slowdown reflects the temporary closure of factories around Beijing during the Olympic games, which cleared the air but made China’s statistics even hazier than usual. …

Now, you notice that I couldn’t color the caption of the chart, but “Sweet and sour” is another metaphor.

So we have: Dominos, dynamos, cushions, a lot of engine stuff (with humming and sputtering, which is fine because it belongs to the same metaphor), as well as some shrugging and crunching and flowing and the obligatory dropping, falling, sliding and so forth.

Why does this happen?

I haven’t taken the time to test this hypothesis, but I will venture to guess that newspapers were mixing fewer metaphors after 9/11. After all planes flying into skyscrapers setting off blazing infernos over the skyline, human beings jumping off of buildings and avalanches of dust shrouding an entire city don’t need metaphors. Such images are what metaphors are made of. They are not abstract but primal.

This financial crisis is the opposite. Who has seen the enemy? What does a credit-default swap look, smell, sound, taste and feel like? Has anybody ever kicked a money-market fund in the shin? Have you ever seen a mortgage-backed security go up in flames? Have “toxic” assets ever actually made you puke?

No, no, and no. This stuff is so hard to write about because it’s so abstract. I once taught a class in which I started by asking “What is money?” One or two people tried the usual “I don’t care as long as I have enough of it”. But, as in the 1930s, people are discovering that money, banknotes and coins aside, is not actually there. That’s in the Gertrude Stein sense of “There’s no there there.” Go into a bank and ask politely to see and touch your money. That’s what I mean.

Ergo: We are in huge trouble, but we can barely even describe why and how. So we stretch for metaphors from primal experience. And we overdo it.

That doesn’t mean I condone it. For good writers, the advice stands: Just say No.


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8 thoughts on “Just one more on metaphors, really

  1. Articles about economics and business, being therefore about abstractions, will probably always be cliche-ridden and filled with mixed metaphors. And why not? because one reads about business and economics to be informed, not to have an aesthetic reading experience.

    Economics especially, being called the “dismal science”, would naturally call for a dismal experience when reading about it, and how better to create a dismal experience than reading prose made dismal through a plethora of cliches and mixed metaphors?

    That said, I recall reading the works of the economist John Kenneth Galbraith with much pleasure, because of his wonderful, witty, and ironical prose – prose refreshingly free of cliches and mixed metaphors.

    The Galbraithian style was an tiny oasis in the vast desert of life-denying economic and business prose.

  2. Hey Andreas,

    What if the author of that piece calls you up and says, ‘I don’t like the way you shred my article on your blog.’ And let’s assume she has a bad temper. How would you respond to that?

    Don’t you risk that?

  3. Hi Abhishek. I don’t think anybody will take offense, because I’m not actually singling one article or author out (I picked this example randomly) and I’m also not criticizing the overall article, which is good. In this four-post series, I’m really just pointing to the widespread debasement of metaphors in general. Furthermore, there are always several people involved in this process, so an editor might well have mixed an author’s previously pure metaphor. It’s about the thing (ie, the sloppy approach to words) not about the people.

  4. I continue to be metaphor sensitive in my writing and reading. I just read a piece by Thomas Friedman (NY Times 29 Oct). Mr Friedman sez: “(Incidentally, this was exactly what happened to the shah of Iran: 1) Sudden surge in oil prices. 2) Delusions of grandeur. 3) Sudden contraction of oil prices. 4) Dramatic downfall. 5) You’re toast.)” You’re toast. Sometimes a metaphor is worth a thousand words (items 4 and 5 might be redundant).

    ‘You’re toast.’ probably doesn’t translate well. This only means something in countries popluated with cheap toasters. If more toasters worked properly, this phrase would have never caught on.

    I have a whole another (whole other?) thought on metaphors in science, but I’ll save it.

  5. You’ve whetted our appetite for your insights on science metaphors. Don’t hold back.
    Re Friedman: Well spotted. I read the same column today and took note. Friedman is a notorious metaphor mixer. As somebody else said, he never “met a phor” he didn’t like. In this case 1) “surge”, 2) “contraction”, 3) “downfall”, and 4) “toast”. Man. Pick one and go with it, Tom.

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