The initial hiccups have been ironed out, and now it is plain sailing for the project towards its target.” This looks like a concocted sentence, but the first half is authentic, spoken by an anchor on a TV channel. The sentence illustrates a rather inept use of metaphor. The writer moves from a medical metaphor to a housekeeping one, and then on to sailing and archery.
Grammarians say that metaphor is a figure of speech. But it is much more than that: Metaphor is a mode of perception, and by linking two areas of our experience, we create a new pattern of meaning. Shakespeare’s metaphor, “life’s but a walking shadow”, can reveal new layers of meaning with each reading.
A metaphoric expression may have a literal meaning too, and in time, one or the other prevails.
“Spectrum” is a good example. Dated around 1610, the word was derived from the Latin verb specere (“to look at”) and meant an image, an illusion. By the end of the century, it became a term in physics, meaning a band of colours formed from a beam of light. The metaphoric use was established when the word began to signify any broad range of ideas or objects. We can speak of a wide spectrum of facilities; or a broad spectrum of management styles, or the whole spectrum of musical genres.
In India today, spectrum has become a household word: the controversy surrounding the 2G spectrum allocation has pulled the meaning of the word closer to its literal telecom sense.
Metaphors are widely and effectively used in news reporting. In the daily edition of a newspaper you can see a dozen metaphors, some old, some new. Here are a few recent examples: Many newspapers headlined the words “Bin Laden on the CIA radar for months”. Three days after bin Laden’s death, Barack Obama said, “We don’t need to spike the football.” Spiking the football means hurling the ball to the ground in rejoicing after scoring a touchdown. He was advising his people not to overdo the celebration of the success of operation Geronimo. The metaphor “burying its head in the sand” appears several times in reports about the European Union (EU) and the European Central Bank (ECB). This metaphor is based on the belief that the ostrich buries its head in the sand when threatened. Here is a quote from a business column: “The European Central Bank is burying its head in the sand ignoring all that is happening globally.” A metaphor that I never tire of going back to is The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost’s best-known poem. The poet unfolds the metaphor in the lines, “I took the road less travelled by/And that has made all the difference.”
The first sentence of this column is an example of mixed metaphor. This is generally considered awkward and confusing. On 11 April, the Deccan Herald carried the headline: “Babus told to bare all.” The paper preceded this with the overhead “Crusade against graft: Govt cracks whip”. Starting with a metaphor from European history, the writer has gone on to horse riding and then to the strip club. More recently, there was this headline on TV: “Political avalanche derails PAC.” Avalanche and railway cannot go together. The classic example of a mixed metaphor comes from a speech by Boyle Roche in the Irish parliament: “I smell a rat; I see him forming in the air; I will nip him in the bud.”
Mixed metaphors are best avoided if they create conflicting images in the reader’s or listener’s mind.
At the same time, if we decide to reject every mixed metaphor, Shakespeare’s text will have to be severely excised. Not everyone can come up with mixed metaphors that stay in the mind. Hamlet’s “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or take arms against a sea of troubles...” appeals by its very boldness of conception. Lady Macbeth’s “Was the hope drunk wherein you dressed yourself?” can only be seen as stroke of genius.
VR Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
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