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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