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That little metaphor seems a touch outdated.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.