Recently in the Metaphors Category


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“Overhead he heard the tiny, unlubricated sound of a bat.” —Theodore Sturgeon, “Excalibur and the Atom,” 1951.

Reading these old Sturgeon stories is reminding me that prose can unashamedly use poetic metaphors. They're the kind of metaphors that never even occur to me to write, but I love reading them; maybe I should practice more.

I think of that kind of thing as having been more common in the '30s through the '50s than it is today; see also my Words & Stuff column (from 1999) on similes, featuring Leigh Brackett, Raymond Chandler, Edith Wharton, and Beryl Markham.

laser sharp

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A few months ago, I encountered a news article that referred to “laser-sharp focus.” I was amused by what I thought was a recombinant idiom, but then when I Googled the phrase, I was surprised to discover that it's in very widespread use, including in plenty of established publications.

The original phrase, “razor-sharp focus,” makes more literal sense (though I know that's an odd thing to say about a metaphor): razors are literally sharp. But then again, when we say that focus is “sharp,” we don't actually mean sharp like a razor.

So I went to the OED for a history of “sharp.” Originally (going back to Old English), it had to do with having a good edge or point for cutting or piercing. Not too much later, it developed a metaphorical meaning: “Acute or penetrating in intellect or perception.” And then a while later it started to mean having acute vision or hearing. And then: “Keen-witted and alert in practical matters, businesslike.”

So by 1697 (the earliest cite listed for that last meaning, though I wouldn't be surprised if it had been used that way earlier), “sharp” has metaphorical connections to both vision and business. So I can imagine that could easily lead to the idea of someone's eyes having a sharp focus, literally and/or metaphorically.

Meanwhile, it also began to refer to an image or object having clearly delineated edges, and by 1883 there's a reference to a photographic image being sharp. So that's an image with a sharp focus.

And then somewhere along the way those uses of “sharp” relating to vision and/or images got combined with the metaphorical comparison to a razor (Thackeray referred to “Epigrams that were as sharp as razors” in Vanity Fair in 1848, though presumably that's not the first use of that phrase). Seems like a natural combination, a way of saying that the focus is not just sharp but very sharp—but still, it's a bit of a mixed metaphor.

And then along came lasers.

And lasers are sharply focused light.

Well, okay, lasers are actually coherent light. But it's easy to think of them—not in a scientific sense, just looking at them from a lay perspective—as being a very sharply focused beam of light.

Also, lasers can be used to cut, and an edge produced by a cutting laser seems (at least in the popular imagination) like it ought to be even sharper than the edge of a razor.

So it makes perfect sense to start with the idea of a “razor-sharp focus” and then update it to the modern world and an idea of even greater sharpness, to creat “laser-sharp focus.”

And it actually makes the metaphor more coherent (if you'll pardon the pun).

So although I initially thought the phrase was a little goofy, taking an already somewhat over-the-top metaphor and magnifying it, I'm now really pleased with it. It takes a longstanding phrase that consisted of two somewhat incompatible metaphors, and it intensifies (heh) the metaphor while also making it more consistent.

(Originally wrote this in February 2012, but didn't post it 'til now.)

Recombinant metaphors: smoking duck

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A Reuters article about the Higgs boson provides a lovely mixed metaphor from Oliver Buchmueller, one of the CERN researchers:

If I were a betting man, I would bet that it is the Higgs. But we can't say that definitely yet. It is very much a smoking duck that walks and quacks like the Higgs. But we now have to open it up and look inside before we can say that it is indeed the Higgs.

Violent rhetoric

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Every so often, friends of mine express outrage about the violent rhetoric and metaphors used by (for example) politicians.

And I agree that there's a lot of violent rhetoric and metaphors.

But one thing I think a lot of people who talk about such things tend to ignore is that common everyday speech is full of violent metaphors.

I've been noticing this for a long time, but I've become especially aware of it since my father's shooting death in 2005. For example, people talk metaphorically about wanting to kill each other all the time. Hell, I sometimes use that kind of language, and I'm a pacifist.

Some very common violent metaphors, just off the top of my head:

  • got them in my sights
  • targeted
  • in the crosshairs
  • I want to kill them
  • our team was slaughtered
  • kill me now
  • shoot me in the face (and variants)
  • stabbed me in the back
  • who do I have to kill to
  • I could murder a steak
  • point-blank
  • that exam was murder
  • slash the budget
  • on the firing line

And then there are all the metaphors about hitting, kicking, hurting, coercion, crushing, smashing, destroying, and causing people to emit sounds of pain. And self-harm, including prying one's own eyes out or shooting oneself in the foot. Not to mention all the violent sexual metaphors, mostly centered on acts that, if really carried out, would be rape.

A couple of the above-listed expressions arguably don't belong on this list, but I'm not going to argue about specific items, 'cause there are lots more where those came from.

I say all this not to condone the violent political rhetoric that others have objected to, but rather to raise awareness of the constant level of violent metaphor that most American English speakers engage in, and are surrounded by, all the time.

I'm certainly not arguing that the above are all expressions of actual interest in causing someone actual harm. Metaphor can make language richer, more colorful, more lively. (If you'll pardon the metaphors.) Metaphor suffuses our language; it would be hard, if not impossible, to say much of substance while entirely avoiding all use of metaphor.

But I do think that our specific choices of which metaphors to use can, sometimes, frame the way that we think about things. So next time you talk metaphorically about killing or murdering or raping or shooting or stabbing or slashing or mangling or punching or kicking or blowing up or stabbing or smashing or destroying or burning down or whatever, pause and think about what you're saying, and about whether that metaphor is the one you want to use.

(I can imagine all sorts of arguments to the effect that the violent rhetoric used by some politicians is different and special and unique and evil and wrong in a way that our ordinary use of violent metaphor isn't. And, sure, I do think that prominent political leaders ought to be even more careful with their words than the rest of us, and that anything that can be interpreted as really urging people to actually kill other people is generally a bad idea. But the question of whether politicians are justified in their metaphors is really not my point in this entry, so I'm hoping that y'all will hold back from arguing with me about that.)

(Wrote this entry a year ago, but wanted to distance it from the specific incidents and arguments at the time; I'm more interested in the general issue than in the specific awfulness that was going on then.)

island of misfit toys

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I don't think I had ever heard of the Island of Misfit Toys before a couple of months ago, when it figured prominently in an anti-iPhone Verizon commercial.

Which would normally be more a matter of my lack of pop-culture knowledge than something relevant to words or language. Except that the phrase seems to be suddenly becoming a popular metaphor.

I saw it in two different news stories during one week a couple weeks ago. I didn't record the first, but the second is a New York Times article, "The Fall and Rise of Media," which says (about job loss in traditional media) "That carnage has left behind an island of misfit toys."

It's possible this has always been used as a metaphor, ever since the Rudolph TV special was broadcast in 1964, and I just didn't notice it until I had a referent to pin it to. But I see that a direct-to-video movie, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Island of Misfit Toys, was released in 2001, and has been aired annually on ABC since December of 2006, so I'm speculating that that's led to increased awareness of the Island. I don't have time to track the phrase further, but I suspect use of the metaphor has gone way up in the past three years.

Bucket of Does


I saw a billboard advertising the new Droid cell phone yesterday. It had a hard-edged and manly sort of high-tech industrial look to it, and it said:


Now, the Droid ad campaign has centered around the idea that there's lots of stuff that the iPhone doesn't do, but that "Droid Does."

So the advertisers can perhaps be forgiven for assuming that everyone would see the word "DOES" as a verb and pronounce it like "duzz."

But for just a moment, as I glanced at the billboard, I saw the word "DOES" as a plural noun, and pronounced it like "doze."

And I wondered: a bare-knuckled bucket full of female deer? Huh?

Block those metaphors

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Benedict Carey of the New York Times sure does like using metaphors to describe science stuff.

At least, that's the conclusion I draw from reading his article Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory. It's an interesting article on an interesting topic, but I got a little distracted by the blend of metaphors for brain activity.

The article's main metaphor is introduced here:

[...] brain cells activated by an experience keep one another on biological speed-dial, like a group of people joined in common witness of some striking event. Call on one and word quickly goes out to the larger network of cells, each apparently adding some detail, sight, sound, smell.

So far, so good. But then a few paragraphs later, things get a little out of hand:

In a series of studies, Dr. Sacktor's lab found that [the molecule PKMzeta] was present and activated in cells precisely when they were put on speed-dial by a neighboring neuron.

In fact, the PKMzeta molecules appeared to herd themselves, like Army Rangers occupying a small peninsula, into precisely the fingerlike connections among brain cells that were strengthened. And they stayed there, indefinitely, like biological sentries.

In short: PKMzeta, a wallflower in the great swimming party of chemicals that erupts when one cell stimulates another, looked as if it might be the one that kept the speed-dial function turned on.

Good thing we've got all those wallflower sentry Army Rangers to keep the speed-dial running.


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She gets fleetingly, gigglingly nude in a rooftop Jacuzzi, but given that we are in London, not California, this just looked a bit parky to me.

--Guardian review of Basic Instinct 2, written by Peter Bradshaw, 31 March 2006

Turns out "parky" is British slang for "cold."

Later in the review, the following phrase appears: "he gets very frowny and shouty and looks as cross as two sticks." I don't remember whether I've encountered that simile before, but I like it.

Pandora's malware

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I was amused by the following somewhat overextended metaphor. ("RFID" refers to Radio Frequency ID chips.)

"RFID malware is a Pandora's box that has been gathering dust in the corner of our 'smart' warehouses and homes."

--"Viruses could infect RFID," article at Monsters And Critics, 16 March 2006

bitten by backdoors

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Block that metaphor!

This just in (a couple weeks ago, when I forgot to post it) from the National Weather Service forecast (which always uses all-caps):


Thanks to Melissa R for passing that along.

better mousetrap

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"Any challenger to a market where one player holds 80 percent share not only has to build a better mousetrap but improve upon the mouse," said Jonathan Spira, chief analyst at Basex, an IT research firm specializing in knowledge sharing and collaboration.

--"Amazon Challenges iPod," article in Red Herring, 16 February 2006

Block that metaphor! ~Yeah, I'd sure buy an improved mousetrap from someone who's also made a better mouse.~

I suppose "improve upon" might mean something like "make less objectionable." But I don't think he thought it through that carefully; I think he just thought it sounded catchy.

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