Abused Metaphors, Soon Dead?

Variety in speech and writing is a desirable trait, and employing a colorful metaphor in place of a more mundane literal statement will enlighten one’s prose. “He swallowed his gun” is certainly more vivid than “He committed suicide.” Some metaphors are so well established that they have become “dead,” that is, they have virtually taken on the meaning of the word they replaced and ceased to be metaphors: “head of state” or “foot of the mountain.” The problem comes in using the same metaphor over and over, eliminating any novelty that it might have once had and rendering it instead an annoyance, akin to a child endlessly repeating some word or phrase he has just learned.

It is of course no surprise that it is politicians, and to a lesser degree news anchors, who are most prominent in running metaphorical phrases into the ground. This habit primarily manifests itself in off the cuff (a metaphor!) speech, since political figures have speech writers for prepared comments. Using a trendy metaphor demonstrates that you are with it, and using it repeatedly then demonstrates that you have a certain lack of originality and likely a limited vocabulary. Politicians are after all accustomed to speaking in “talking points” in order to avoid saying something actually revealing and possibly damaging. Endlessly repeated and tiresome metaphors are at least distantly related to talking points, is so far as they are safer than trying another expression, which might lead to a slip.

Possibly the most tedious recently overused metaphor is “kicking the can down the road.” This is an especially useful political metaphor, since it means “putting off a serious decision,” which seems to have become endemic in the US Congress. While it is very doubtful that many people under the age of eighty know this is a reference to a depression era children’s game, it nevertheless presents a colorful image and does not have the immediate implication of inability to make a decision, which suggests failure. This expression has become almost intimately associated with America’s fiscal problems, so we can expect it to be trotted out (metaphor!) on a regular basis. Going on about cans being kicked certainly sound better than “we can’t do our job.”

kicking the can

kicking the can

Another periodic and increasingly annoying metaphor regularly appears during election campaigns, which seem to be going on most of the time. This is the constant need to “energize the base,” which sounds much more up-beat and electric than “appeal to my core voters.” And in the case of Republicans “base” sounds a lot more innocuous than “the radical minority that can make or break my reelection.” “Base” is incidentally another example of a dead metaphor.

Then there are the “options on the table,” wonderful for negotiations and especially non-negotiations, like the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. Presumably this once had an actual concrete meaning in the sense that negotiators typically do sit across from one another at a table and on that table are documents pertaining to possible deals. This might be considered a legitimate metaphor, evoking as it does the actual negotiating circumstances, but it has been delegitimized by incredible overuse. Once cannot hear of any negotiating or bargaining situation without hearing at the same time references to options and the table. Tedious.

table with no options

table with no options

Particularly annoying to me is the ubiquitous “at the end of the day,” a favorite of public figures and news people. No one now ever says ‘in the end” or “at the conclusion” or even the concise “finally.” “At the end of the day” is certainly more poetic than the more literal possibilities, which is probably why it so overused by people who are distinctly non-poetic. It also sounds more romantic, suggesting a manor house rather than an office or studio.

end of the day (with non-people American)

end of the day (with non-people American)

Everyone of course has noticed that no politician, especially one who is being grilled, ever says “then.” No, it is always “at that point in time.” The reason for this is obvious and certainly well known to educationists, the other large group abusing our language: why use one word when you can say the same thing with five? “Then” is too simple; common people use it. How much more grand and redolent of intellect and education is “at that point in time.” One could of course say “at that time,” but this does not sound as precise as referring to an actual point in the time-space continuum. Because of their reluctance to commit themselves to well-defined positions, politicians are generally surrounded by a cloud of vagueness, ambiguity and lack of details and referring to a “point in time” creates some illusion of precision. But still, one wants to know: exactly how long is “a point in time.”

And have you noticed that politicians never speak about “the people” or about “Americans”? It is inevitably the “American people.” This phrase is obviously not a metaphor, but it is one that is endlessly repeated, which makes one wonder if these people also talk about “free gifts” or “true facts.” Apparently our politicians fear that if they simply said the “people,” listeners would not know exactly which people they were referring to. Perhaps President Lincoln was taking a big chance with his “of the people” thing, though one might think that today the fact that every politician wears an American flag pin would provide a clue as to which people he was talking about. Why not simply “Americans”? Obvious: it surely does not sound as grand (or pompous) as the “American people,” and in any case politicians are only concerned with Americans who can vote, which does not include the Americans who are not people. Odd how frequently what an elected official says the American people want is contradicted by polls. It must be poor polling.

Further, why do they always refer to themselves in the plural? Do they consider themselves a sort of royalty, since like Louis XIV they believe themselves to be the state? (The phrase attributed to Louis XV, après moi, les delúge, might be more applicable to American politicians.) Or is it because most of the work and thinking is done by their staffs and they are actually referring to a group? Using “we” instead of “I’ does of course allow the possibility of collective rather than individual responsibility in the event of a problem, an extremely important consideration for any politician.

Specific to news anchors is another abused metaphor: “walk us through.” A reporter or expert is never asked to explain something, but rather to walk us through it. Once again, the beauty of a metaphor is the ability to provide an alternative and more colorful way to say something mundane, in this case employing a concrete image of learning (walking one through, for example, a dance step or football play) for an abstract and colorless word, explain. And once again the problem is beating the phrase into the ground with overuse and in this particular instance robbing it of its specific meaning. The expression has been traditionally used for explaining something very complex, something you need to be walked through to understand, but now it is employed to request an explanation of even simple things.

Finally, there are two expression that are not overused metaphors but are nevertheless annoying to the intelligent (or at least should be) and plain stupid. They are manifestations of the rot of hyper-sensitivity and political correctness that afflicts our society and demonstrate the silliness people, especially public figures and academics, are willing to engage in. I speak of the “n-word” and the “f-bomb.” They of course stand for the racially offensive “nigger” and supposedly offensive “fuck” and thus allow serious discussion of issues involving these words without actually using the words themselves.

This practice is ludicrous. A word is a commonly understood symbol that allows reference to a thing or an act or whatever, and in this case another symbol is simply substituted for the offensive symbol. But does not everyone who hears “n-word” or “f-bomb” immediately think “nigger” or “fuck? So, the perceived problem must lie not in using these terms but only in vocalizing them, which suggests many Americans apparently live in some sort of mythic universe where the symbol is the thing and speaking the name brings about the existence of what is named. The Greeks, for example, never spoke the actual names of the Furies for fear of summoning them but rather referred to them as the Eumenides, the “kindly intentioned ones,” a wonderful appellation for three incredibly malevolent deities. So, is it thus all right to yell “hey, n-word” at a Black? If it is still offensive (which is how it will be understood), then is it not also offensive to sit around and talk about the “n-word”?

“F-bomb” deserves special attention. It is even more silly than “n-word,” because virtually everyone, including the well-educated, at one time or another employs obscenities, especially this one. The word is learned early on by most children and is a bit of vocabulary that is deeply embedded in our culture. But official America seems often inclined to pretend that we are not what we are and that most people would be instantly offended by hearing a reporter say “fuck.” Actually, in the case the media it is the fear that the three viewers out of several million who really were offended will take action and scare off sponsors. This at least is a rational consideration. It is interesting that it is not “f-word” but “f-bomb,” suggesting just what an outrage the public utterance of this word it. Then why is it not “n-bomb,” inasmuch as nigger is truly an offensive and explosive term, while fuck is a fun word that almost everyone enjoys using? Who knows? This is America.