Thursday, March 4, 2010

Metaphor Madness

Most of us like to try to sound marginally intelligent in our conversations with others. Not all, but most of us. Even when we aren’t trying to impress someone, we don’t want our friends and acquaintances to think “God, I can’t stand listening to him!” This is one of the reasons that cliches are unacceptable in scholarly papers, news articles and any form of writing that is designed to be of a professional ilk. Likewise original thoughts and metaphors carry a heavier weight in verbal intercourse than tired-out cliches.

Nevertheless, worn old cliches and metaphors do serve a purpose. Some are so aptly put that it is difficult to come up with a better phrase to illustrate one’s point. “Between a rock and a hard place” is one metaphorical cliche that comes to mind. It carries an indefatigable image to which anyone can relate. The circumstances it describes are immediately understandable. And you and I both know that no amount of learning or eloquence will eradicate tired cliches and metaphors.

Therefore it seems time that rather than declaring a moratorium on such phrases, it is time for a quick lesson on their use and structure. As stated, no one wants to seem unintelligent in front of anyone. The act of using a cliche or threadbare metaphor treads thin ice (there’s one!), so let’s make sure that you know how to properly use them.

Let’s look at a few examples. “It’s six of one and a half-dozen of the other” is a benign starting point. If you are going to use this cliche, go to the trouble of actually saying “it’s six of one and a half-dozen of the other.” A popular bastardization of this phrase lately has been expressed as “it’s what and what.” Remember, we’re trying to sound marginally intelligent. Abandoning the imagery that “six of one and a half-dozen of the other” carries just sounds stupid. To say “what and what” simply portrays the speaker as one who rummages around in his brain for a simple thing, a thing that should be right there on top of everything else and, being unsuccessful, asks the listener two questions “what?’ and “what?” because he can't even finish his own thought. Do you want to be the type of conversationalist that your listener thinks of you: “Jesus Christ, he can’t even come up with a tired old metaphor! I don’t want to listen to someone who can’t even find his conversational ass with both hands.”

Here’s another one. “God-given” and God-forsaken” are NOT interchangeable.
"God-forsaken" is a description of something that even the Creator of all things has left alone. If you have a God-given right to something, do not say it is God-forsaken. This will have the rest of us picturing you finding something after digging through a dumpster of hazardous waste and horrible, rotting garbage in the effort to cling to that thing which even the homeless would throw out. If you believe that you have a “God-forsaken right” to something, then by all means, indulge in it, but don’t whine to anyone that no one else wants to be around you. Even God would ask what that smell is.

Do you you have a girlfriend? A boyfriend? Significant other? Life partner? Mistress? Sweetheart? Fuck buddy? Then please let the world know this relationship! Do not refer to them as your “boo.” It sounds as if you were going to say “boyfriend” but then got tired mid-word and just left it at “boo” because you were too lazy to finish the syllables. At best, describing someone as your “boo” sounds as if the individual in question is the person who scares you every Halloween.

Do not try to improve upon cliches and well-known metaphors. If you must describe yourself as being stuck between two difficult, if not impossible obstacles, then say that you were “between a rock and a hard place.” Do not tell your audience that you were “trapped between a cliff and a mountain.” Nor should your say you were betwixt “a concrete wall and a cement rampart.” Your metaphor may be amusing to the odd geologist or structural architect, but for the most part, we will think of you as someone who has clearly never gotten laid.

One more tip, because I’m tired and I want to go to bed. Avoid dogs in your metaphors. Utilizing the imagery of a canine is confusing, and can make you look like more of an idiot. The common phrase “working like a dog” is not consistent with the also common phrase “it’s a dog’s life.” If you describe someone as working like a dog (rough, sweaty, difficult work) then how will we reconcile the leisurely, lying-around-but sometimes-licking-my-butt imagery that “a dog’s life” conveys? Are you “dog tired” because you were working “like a dog” or because you laid around in the sun doing nothing on a “dog day afternoon”? Yes, dogs in conversation are inconsistent, confusing and often embarrassing. Avoid them. You don’t want to give your friends the wrong impression when you greet them with “Yo, dawg!”

Stay tuned for more metaphor madness in days to come. In the meantime, try not to sound like an idiot. Yes, this may mean you might actually have to use your brain when speaking. But then, isn’t that what you want to sound like you’re doing?

1 comment:

RevMedic said...

Thanks. That was a real eye-opener for me. A wake up call.