Some years ago, I was traveling in Spain with my wife and my daughter. And at that time small bands of teenage thieves — “wolf packs” — prowled the streets of Madrid, preying on unwary folks like us. The way they worked was, one would do something to distract the victim while another sneaked in quickly to snatch a purse or wallet — standard pickpocket procedure.
I must have seemed an easy mark (I have an out-to-lunch demeanor much of the time), because two of these wolf packs targeted me on the same day. The first attack was on a busy sidewalk, but I saw them coming and brushed them away. The second group made their move in a subway station. More complicated situation.
One boy had squeezed in directly in front of me on a crowded escalator, while another moved in behind. I was paying no mind to either of them. Just as we reached the top of the escalator, the boy in front suddenly blocked my way by bending over as if to pick up something he had dropped. Then, from behind, in this moment of confusion, I felt a hand going for the wallet in my hip pocket.
Before he could remove the wallet I spun around and confronted him. He was very young, and he stood frozen, facing me there on the crowded landing. Now I was yelling at this kid, first in Spanish, which I spoke fairly well at that time, but as my anger rose, my curses turned to English.
The scene became cinematic. The boy and I were surrounded by a large audience. When they heard me scream “ladrón!” I could feel their sympathies moving my way. But, to complete this picture, the other thing you should visualize is that I had assumed a martial arts pose — slight crouch, sideways to my adversary, left foot forward, right foot back, hands raised for combat. This I had learned from two or three weeks of karate instruction some years back, but I had never before assumed that stance in anger. (Those who know me will find this little scene hard to picture, but that’s how it was.)
The young Spanish pickpocket stood in silence, stupefied, I suppose, by my near-apoplectic rage. “You’re a thief!” I was yelling. “I’ll smash you through this fucking floor!”
Then the kid said something I don’t think I will ever forget. In calm and perfect English, barely accented, he asked, “What’s your problem?”
Maybe in karate classes more advanced than the one I took they teach you how to respond to such a thing. But I was rendered speechless. And I’m not sure about this, but at that moment I think what I did was, I laughed.
The Slow Death of Metaphors —
(Some, Like Zombies, Keep Lumbering On)
I was reading a news story about the jobless recovery, and it said that even though companies still aren’t doing enough hiring, their investment in new equipment has gone “into overdrive.”
That little metaphor seems a touch outdated. It feels like the early 1960s. I expect a lot of young people don’t get the reference. “On steroids” has a similar meaning but is more contemporary.
Trends in figures of speech follow changes in technology, science and life style. Take the way we visualize our brains. Nobody knows how thought really happens, so we use metaphors. The age of mechanization gave us expressions like “The wheels were turning in his head” or “He’s got a screw loose.”
Thomas Edison not only invented electrical gadgets, he gave cartoonists a handy way to characterize brain activity – an idea represented by a light bulb. Before we had light bulbs we had nature. A new idea would “dawn” on us, or we’d have a “brain storm.” More recently, we’ve started saying that our minds are “hard-wired.” Thanks to the advent of data processing, we also say, when we don’t understand something, that it “doesn’t compute.”
Jesus is said to have told his followers, “Take my yoke upon you,” an expression that held its currency for nearly two millennia. But if Jesus had been preaching in the 20th century you know he’d have used something more modern – maybe an automobile metaphor, or something about airplanes. Or, in this century, something about the Internet.
The more abstract a thing is, the more metaphorical our descriptions of it must be. Just about everything we say or think about the Internet is a metaphor. We speak of it in terms of roads (the information superhighway, fast and slow lanes, traffic, crashing) and water (surfing, navigating, streaming, piracy) and physical space (“the cloud”).
As old technologies die, the metaphors they inspired grow feeble, their origins hazy, their power diminished. Still, they often hang around. To “drop the dime” on someone still means to tattle, even though pay phones are only found now in technology museums. People who repeat themselves are still accused of “sounding like a broken record.” One of my favorite expressions of all time is “throwing out the baby with the bath water,” but, really, no one “throws out” bath water any more, it just flows down the drain, so the metaphor no longer works so well.
My newspaper friends know that the word stereotype, meaning an often-repeated image or characterization, comes from a kind of printing using metal plates. But did you know that the French word for that same kind of printing is cliché?
You probably know that our expression “bite the bullet” comes from a wounded soldier biting a musket ball during field surgery. You may also know why we call an unreliable, uncontrollable person “a loose cannon.” It refers to an unsecured gun on a ship’s deck – a wonderfully vivid image, but it’s been at least a century and a half since naval guns rolled around like that.
I bet you don’t know about the word aftermath. It is a completely dead metaphor, and it comes from farming. A math used to mean a patch of mown hay or grain. And an aftermath was the grass that sprang up after mowing. Now that I’ve told you that, you’ll think of it every time you see the word. I’ve enriched your life. You’re welcome.
Here’s a Cole Porter song that’s one long string of metaphors, some extremely dated (“Crosby’s salary”), others less so. The singer is Louis Armstrong, who is timeless.
Maria Muldaur does maybe the best version of “Lover Man” I ever heard — it’s right up there with the original version by Billie Holiday. This is from Muldaur’s 1979 album “Open Your Eyes.” The guitar solo is by Amos Garrett, the same guy who played so beautifully on other Muldaur recordings, including her 1974 hit “Midnight at the Oasis.” Garrett echoes Muldaur’s own sliding, drawling, quavering style of delivery. They were kind of made for each other.
In this Pieter Brueghel painting, you must look closely to even see the celebrated event, the fall of Icarus from the sky. The boy’s legs are visible at the lower right, just below the little ship, as they disappear into the water. See them now? What the painter emphasized, instead of that, was the larger landscape and the plowman too busy with his work to notice or care about the amazing tragedy. The poet has a rollicking time appreciating this.
Musee des Beaux Arts
BY W. H. AUDEN
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance, how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
She seems a mere girl really,
small-breasted and slim,
her body luminescent
next to Adam, who scratches
his head in mild perplexity.
So many baubles hang
from the tree
it didn’t hurt to pick one.
The snake is a quicksilver curve
on a branch she is almost
young enough to swing from.
The garden bores her anyway;
no weedy chaos among
the flowers and vegetables;
the animals so tame
you can hardly tell the lamb
from the lion, the doe from the stag
whose antlers outline Adam’s modesty.
She is like that teen-age girl
who wandered from the mall last week
not to be seen again, the world before her
glittering and perilous.