The Art of Mixing Metaphors

When Hillary Clinton outlined her strategy for combating ISIS in a speech last November, one sentence stood out for me:

“But we have learned that we can score victories over terrorist leaders and networks, only to face metastasizing threats down the road, so we also have to play and win the long game.”

Metaphors are not just a rhetorical device but something essential to our cognition. Some are so ingrained that it’s hard to talk, or even think, of certain things without them, as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson point out in their classic book The Metaphors We Live By. One is the universal metaphor of understanding as seeing: look here, I see, point of view, shed light, brilliant argument. And this conception itself touches on the very essence of metaphor: translating abstract ideas into something visual.

It is very hard to visualize the bizarre game in Clinton’s speech, that requires players to face cancer cells moving down a road. What are all these incompatible images even meant to signify, other than “me fight you long time”? In his essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell notes that meaningless strings of hackneyed phrases can be both a cause and an effect of not saying much at all. Mixed metaphors are, in particular, “a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying.”

If understanding can be seen as, well, seeing, understanding is also simply understanding: standing among or with, as the word implies. “To understand” is itself a metaphor. “Metaphor” is itself a metaphor, an image of something being carried from one place to another. In fact, peeling back the etymological layers within almost any sentence one begins to see how much of language is poetry — spontaneous and seemingly bad poetry, riddled with mixed metaphors. When we say, for instance, that someone “has a right”, we conjure the impossible Zen-like vision of a hand holding itself: the etymology of “to have” stems from grasping, and “right” refers to our right hand. Or when I write of “seeing that language is poetry” (as I just did), I seem to be claiming that my eyes are perceiving the tongue to be a songstress.

Sometimes words we use to dismiss or ridicule have roots that should defeat the intention. Anyone ought to be flattered to be called an “amateur”, a lover. Another such term, pervasive in American political discourse, might be “fringe”. When ideas or people deviate too much from orthodoxy, applying this label is an easy way to avoid engaging them. But could it be that the mainstream pundits and politicos who like to use this word inadvertently flatter?

Talk about mixed metaphors! A fringe candidate is someone mocked as residing too far from the acceptable center on an abstract plane of ideas: the word presents us a picture of the outer edges of a garment. But when we talk about an actual piece of clothing, “fringe” derives from the name of a very real periphery in the ancient Roman Empire, Friuli, on the northeastern border of present-day Italy. And the region, in turn, is named after the Old Norse god Freyr (from the Proto-Norse fraujaz) who was worshipped there. As the US presidential election approaches, you might come across, say, the Green Party candidate Jill Stein’s name coupled with this descriptive (in the unlikely event you hear the name at all). Remember then that “fringe” also refers to a god of peace and prosperity.

Images like these, nestled within images referring to other images, both incompatible and compatible — this is the stuff that emerges as we strive to capture and convey meaning. I remember becoming vividly aware of this after having spent a few years collaborating with Indian musicians and dancers, as I was watching an erotic piece in the Bharatanatyam style. Many classical Indian dance traditions employ an intricate system of hand gestures or mudras, a sign language combined with mime to illustrate and narrate. The dancer’s left hand was cupped, to paint an image of a flower; her right thumb and middle finger joined to portray a bee hovering above it. But the flower and bee turn out to be another image, a metaphor for sexual intercourse. And finally, sex is yet another symbol, representing the divine union between God and devotee.

Nothing seems out of place or counterintuitive. And yet, it’s messy. We start with human hands; they become an animal and a plant; the animal and plant become copulating human bodies; and all of this points to a fourth, more profound and abstract image, with none of them ultimately more important than the others. Why do these images work so well, while the horrid game envisioned by Clinton’s speech writers, played against terror-threat tumors metastasizing down the road, comes across as both absurd and trite? Behind one is an attempt to approach something that is all but beyond capturing, yet vivid. The other is a parade of tired stock images that aren’t even meant to add up — in Orwell’s words, performing “the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.”

Perhaps mixed metaphor itself is a potent symbol for the confusing, endlessly interwoven layers of meaning that life throws at us, and our attempts to illuminate them. I would like to believe that’s the meta-metaphor Shakespeare was going for when he had Prospero say, “And as the morning steals upon the night, melting the darkness, so their rising senses begin to chase the ignorant fumes that mantle their clearer reason.” Wait — what?

When mixed skillfully, when the meaning chooses the images rather than vice versa, the result can be as beautiful, overwhelming, and messy as life is.

[Related articles:
Bullshit as Signaling
Ten Jokes, Explained
Putting the “B” Bach in GEB
Technology Bringing Dumb Ethical Questions to Life (Kind Of)

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