Still, dying metaphors will always be with us, for metaphors must make their way from newborn to corpse somehow. They cloak not only the politicians' brutal designs; they cloak ordinary thoughts and intentions as well. But what do they cloak them with? Odd, intriguing figurative speech. Look beneath the metaphor to the true meaning of a statement. Clarity is intellectual morality. But then, for the sheer joy of it, look at the cloak itself, at the dying metaphors. They, too, are poetry, and we are poets because of them.
I am often accused of "flying off the handle." What does that mean? It used to mean, to me, that some member of my family was insensitive, unsympathetic, uncooperative and unsupportive. Now, I see myself flying through the air, flung from the handle of an ax like a loose blade, sparkling steel cutting through the blue of the bright sky, soaring, noble and alone, toward the heavens! My life has been considerably enriched.
Some years ago, I experienced a metaphor epiphany while watching "Chariots of Fire." On the screen, one of the skinny young men in flapping white shorts drew a line in the dirt with his foot, then carefully stood, placing the toe of his primitive running shoe against that line. The music began pumping, the scrawny Brits in their underclothes ran like gods, emotions soared, mine among them -- "Toe the line!"
I forget who won the race. But I'll never forget that moment -- an awakening, a usage revelation. Unblock that metaphor! My mother, left with the dog when my brother and I went off to college, called me one evening, miserable, and said, "The dog is . . . dogging my steps." Pause. "He's hounding me, too!" she cried out in excitement of her linguistic discovery. And so, understanding, she forgave.
"Toe the line" was one of Orwell's examples of a dying metaphor. It has so thoroughly lost its pictorial power, he wrote incredulously, that it is often written "tow the line." Until my "Chariots of Fire" epiphany, I, knowing full well how to spell it, had nevertheless pictured its meaning as "tow the line." But it was a picture: a downtrodden, oppressed sort of fellow in a blue peasant blouse, a rope over his bent shoulder, hauling a barge heavy with its cargo of conventions, rules, expectations.
Now here's a question. In a recent newspaper article on women in film, a high-level female producer was quoted in this way: "You do have a responsibility to make movies that are commercial, and you do try to tow the studio line." Was she misquoted? Did she in fact say "toe the studio line"? Very likely. But perhaps, on the other hand (a lovely dead metaphor: "on the other hand"), perhaps she's never seen "Chariots of Fire" or read "Politics and the English Language." In which case, she might have imagined, as she spoke, a downtrodden, oppressed sort of female producer in high heels, a rope over her bent shoulder, hauling a huge barge heavy with studio conventions, rules, expectations.
I don't know the answer to my question, but I think that for many reasons, including all those downtrodden folk unnecessarily hauling all those barges when they could simply be standing with their toes neatly aligned, we should revive the dying metaphor.
I used to think a potboiler was a book that bubbled with trashy sex and intrigue. A beach book. Now I know the reference is not to the book itself but to the author's boiling pot, brimming with meat and potatoes earned through his hack labors, writing, you know -- a beach book.
One can become overenthusiastic, it is true. I interpreted "Curses! Foiled again," to mean "Curses! My opponent's narrow, flexible sword has touched me again!" Then I looked up "foiled" in the dictionary. It means . . . foiled. But so what?
The dying metaphor gives to the world a fresh and vivid sense of absurdity. We are sticks in the mud stabbing in the dark. Think what a stick in the mud really is. Feh! And think, now, what you yourself are. A living body of language: nosy, handy, tongue in cheek. You can have a belly full and go belly up, stomach one thing, palm off another. Headstrong, hotheaded. And best of all: cheek by jowl. Picture a cheek by a jowl. Very close indeed. We're homesick one day, suffering from cabin fever the next. We're windbags or razor-tongued. There is a preposterous, literal-minded grandeur to the deconstructed dying metaphor, a quality otherwise found only in Greek myths and Saul Steinberg drawings.Continue reading the main story
What Makes Metaphors Important?
Metaphors add clarity by linking with the person's existing thoughts, emotions, and beliefs that are internalized--they create a picture of what the person is already thinking, feeling, and believing. Because visual words engage the client with imagery that can be experienced, this emotional connection to reality amplifies the person's intuitive perceptions and understanding. Authors Whitworth, Kimsey House, and Sandahl of Co-Active Coachingstate,
"Often the truth for clients is not in their mind but in their heart or gut. Metaphors tend to bypass the analysis and target those powerful places."
Because metaphorical expressions create powerful and lasting images and ideas, they are effective at communicating both tangible and conceptual information. Tangible information is considered factual or literal information while conceptual is intangible, abstract information.
Let's look at this in more detail. Factual information in a metaphor is confirming the person's reality and is a mirror of that reality. In other words--fact and truth. An abstract part of a metaphor adds perspective, and insight, possibilities--all supporting the person to understand and see beyond his or her current reality.
"Metaphors engage a person with visual imagery that can be experienced in ways that bring added perspective and possibilities."
Direct report: "My boss wants to promote me from Customer Service Agent to Director of Customer Service. It's one thing to be a part of a team, but a whole other thing to lead it. I've enjoyed my job for the past three years...this would be a significant change."
Leader's response: "A leap from team to director--certainly a compliment to you, but a significant change in position and function."
This brief illustration of metaphorical language communicated the tangible information of change and the conceptual information of leap.
- Significant change in position and function communicates the tangible facts.
- Using the simple word "leap" connects to the person's existing thoughts, emotions, and beliefs that are internalized, communicates understanding of the person's situation, and adds perspective. This validates the person's own belief on the situation which in turn generates confidence.
- The person is now in a conversational space where he or she is ready and wanting to explore the situation further.