A front page story in the Thursday morning newspaper reported that 40 Republican members of the House of Representatives had joined 60 Democrats in signing a letter to the Congressional “supercommittee” which has little time remaining to find ways to reduce the gargantuan $14.8 trillion national debt, or see automatic cuts to defense and domestic spending kick in.
The bipartisan House group urged the committee to consider all options to meet its goal, including the potential trimming of government programs favored by one party or the other. The Associated Press story was a routine read until it came to the part where the reporter quoted Ohio Republican Rep. Steven LaTourette, one of the signers of the letter, as he attempted to negotiate his way through a metaphor-laden minefield.
Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines a metaphor as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them.”
LaTourette showed he is no amateur when it comes to mixing figures of speech.
“When this big deal comes out, any member can find 10, 20 or 30 reasons to say ‘no,’” he said of the supercommittee‘s pending deficit-reduction recommendations to Congress. “It’s now a time for the ostriches to pull their heads out of the sand, the holier than thou crowd to get off their horses — the sacred cows need to be made into hamburger.”
Three metaphors hooked together in a single sentence before being transformed into a huge hamburger patty may strike some readers as a great opening line for a bad joke, I suppose. (“An ostrich, a horse and a sacred cow walk into a bar…”) It would also seem to be a linguistic trifecta not easily topped.
If the man had thought to add the politician’s standard gored ox as substitute Hamburger Helper to the ostrich-horse-sacred-cow mix, the resulting concoction might have merited a berth in the Mixed Metaphor Hall of Fame.
Upon reading the passage, I recalled the advice on metaphors the late syndicated columnist and word maven James J. Kilpatrick gave in his book “The Writer’s Art,” published by Andrews, McMeel and Parker, Inc.
“Metaphors are icing on the pound cake of ordinary prose,” Kilpatrick wrote. “Metaphors also are a touch of brandy in the sauce of style. A literary cook can get too heavy with the icing, or too heavy with the booze. Metaphors can be overdone, as I am overdoing this one, but used judiciously, metaphors are marvelous devices.”
The first rule in using them, Kilpatrick advised, is keep them short.
“Metaphors are rope-slung bridges over Andean gorges: They are fragile affairs, incapable of bearing great weight. If you ask a metaphor to carry you across a long sentence, you are likely to get flipped over the edge of folly.”
I figure that anyone who has done much writing has likely contributed his or her fair share of mixed metaphors to the world’s figures-of-speech landfill. As well, readers with a keen eye for the not-so-aptly-turned phrase delight in finding and reporting them to the authorities, much as a kid gets a kick in finding hidden treasures at the annual Easter egg hunt on the village green.
Kilpatrick cited some memorable examples of what he called “mixaphors.” In reporting on an election that put into office an archconservative and a dedicated liberal, a California television personality said voters had “dipped their toes into a mixed bag.” A New Jersey sportscaster once reported that when it came to their first draft choice “the Patriots are playing their decision close to the vest right down to the wire.”
Other misadventures in print included a person who “deals out of both ends of his mouth,” another who “is trying to get his foot in the tent” and a third who favors “putting the issue on the back burner in a holding pattern.”
The metaphors “collapsed from the weight of the cliches in which they were fashioned,” Kilpatrick suggested. Thus, his third rule concerning the figures of speech: “Make them like breakfast biscuits, fresh every morning.”
Easier said than done, of course, especially if one is a lousy cook and operating under pressure of deadline. But we ought to keep trying. Lord knows, our sauce of style can always stand a touch of brandy to perk it up a notch.
BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.