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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Metaphor metaphysics

And just to follow up with the final post in this trilogy on mixed metaphors (after this and this), here is the exegesis of what goes on when you commit this crime.

1) The writer

From the writer’s point of view, the reason for mixing metaphors is usually fear and laziness, a toxic cocktail.

The fear is that whatever he is writing is not interesting enough in and of itself. It is not a murder mystery, but a friggin’ merger of two banks, for instance. Or a wobble in the stockmarket. Or something else that Truman Capote never chose to write about. So, out of insecurity, he and his editor dramatize. They do that by aggrandizing the thing in question with words from more primal situations. Mergers become either “takeover battles” or “marriages.” Divestitures become “divorces”. Usually, war, love, sex, floods, fires, mountains and geology (“erosion,” “tectonic shifts,” “rifts”) find their way into the passage. And so on.

The laziness consists of not even noticing. They stuff these templates of primal experience into their paragraphs and don’t bother to think about what the words actually mean.

2) The reader

When the reader sees the outcome, he has one of two reactions. If sophisticated, he will notice the mixed metaphors and lose respect for the writer, usually in excess of what is justified, and probably stop reading the article, or at least taking it seriously.

If less sophisticated or hurried, he may not notice the mixed metaphor per se. But something more insidious now occurs. The different metaphors (floods, fires, quakes, wars) will cancel one another out in his mind. Instead of evoking strong and specific images, which is what metaphors are supposed to do, they produce a verbal goo. Its effect is tedium. The text loses energy and the reader gets tired and bored. The subject that the writer feared was not sufficiently interesting is now even less interesting. It’s excruciating.

3) The solution

In 99% of all cases, the solution is for the writer to address first the laziness (because that’s easier) and then the fear. To stop being lazy, just get in the habit of loving words and seeing their original meanings. To stop being afraid, get in the habit of forgetting about your audience entirely. You must find your subject interesting (otherwise, why not choose something else to write about?), and so it simply is interesting.

At this point, you’re ready to take all metaphors out of your text and see what’s left. Usually, it will be much better. The big secret about metaphors is that you don’t usually need them at all! Other details, from direct observation, take over.

Then, if you really feel something is missing, choose something evocative–but just one single image for the entire article–and stick with that. It doesn’t need to be “literary”. I heard a Congressman complain about the “bailout” package last week by saying that it was “a giant cow patty with a little marshmellow in the middle of it”. He didn’t even need to spell out that he was not going to swallow the marshmellow (by voting Yes), given what it was served in. Now that’s an effective metaphor, don’t you think?

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Mixed metaphors

I’ve weighed in a number of times on various style crimes in the English language, starting with my rant on this grammar felony. Now Abhishek, India’s up-and-coming podcaster, tells me that he’d like more on style and language on this blog. Well, Abhishek, this one’s for you.

We’re in the middle of a financial meltdown, you may have noticed. Well, meltdown is a metaphor, from the nuclear industry. It’s fine to use metaphors from time to time. But let’s have a look at two articles published in the last hour by esteemed organizations, the New York Times and the Associated Press, about today’s market drop (another metaphor).

First, the two opening paragraphs of the NYT article:

Stocks fell by nearly 9 percent on Monday — the worst single-day drop in two decades — after the government’s bailout plan, touted by its supporters as a balm for the current market stress, failed to pass the House of Representatives, setting off a fresh wave of anxious selling.

In yet another day that has shaken the embattled canyons of Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrials fell 777.68 points after it became clear that the legislation could not muster the support it needed to pass the House.

You notice I had some fun here by giving colors to each kind of metaphor. This was actually quite hard, because I ran out of colors of sufficient contrast. And that’s exactly my point.

In a passage of 85 words, I counted nine different kinds of metaphors, and I was being conservative. That things should be falling and dropping and otherwise succumbing to gravity when prices are going down seems obvious. That bailout nowadays refers more to Wall Street than to ships in distress I can accept. But….

… do we really need–simultaneously!–to imagine ointments (balm) for wounds, in this case stress, as well as waves, even though these do not go on to deluge anything, but rather shake things? In fact, it turns out that the things being shaken are canyons, which makes us wait for some quaking or perhaps erosion. Instead, we discover that the canyons are embattled (although it is not clear by whom). Just as I settle in for more siege and war images, I am asked to go back to falling, and then to take a side trip to mustering, with an image of congressmen standing at attention.

Ouch. My head is spinning. If the writer just wants me to know that this is all really bad, well, I get it. But do I need word torture as well?

Surely, this one slipped through the editors. The Associate Press, in its opening paragraph, probably does it better. Let’s see:

Wall Street’s worst fears came to pass Monday, when the government’s financial bailout plan failed in Congress and stocks plunged precipitouslyhurtling the Dow Jones industrials down nearly 780 points in their largest one-day point drop ever. Credit markets, whose turmoil helped feed the stock market’s angst, froze up further amid the growing belief that the country is headed into a spreading credit and economic crisis.

Oh well. So we have the bailout, then a whole lot of plunging and dropping with some hurtling (not the same thing) thrown in. Fine. But now we also get turmoil and then, instead of waves and canyons, feeding! Of angst, no less, which I recall means fear in German. This fear is apparently what caused a temperature drop because the markets froze. And this in September. While this was going on various things were either growing or spreading.

Pulitzers to all involved.

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