Monday, September 9, 2013

Mixed up with Metaphors?

President Obama’s 2009 inaugural address was certainly composed by some of the brightest rhetoricians in the country.  But one slip-up in particular…

“As we consider the road that unfolds before us…”

…reminds us that even the best mix their metaphors.  Political speeches make easy pickings when it comes to the harvesting of linguistic sour apples, because metaphorical imagery is frequently used to help a listener visualize the talking point.  Elsewhere in the speech, the president effectively used images of the perseverance of American revolutionaries by relating their militaristic circumstance to our economic circumstance:

"Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but home and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it

 So where did President Obama stumble?

We recall that metaphors are a form of figurative language that allows us to describe an abstract concept with a dissimilar, often concrete, image.  In the line from the address, two concrete images are intended to describe the abstract concept of the future of our country:

1. Our country’s future is like a road that we will follow.
2. Our country’s future is like a map that is unfolding.

The problem is that metaphors work by creating images in our mind, and the President’s mixed metaphor evokes two dissimilar images.  A road cannot unfold like a map, so what image can we form? 

Don’t worry if the example is just clicking now.  Mixed-metaphors can be tricky, because we get so used to using concrete images (like road or book) that we transform them into abstractions (like journey or story.)  We call these dead metaphors, which is a kind of cliché.  Last week I talked about the cliché impact and how it sneaked into our language.  

Since mixed metaphors are sneaky, I can give a technique for spotting them.  As you read, imagine each subject and verb in its most literal sense.  Doodle the scene if necessary.  If the runner gets to fly down the track (like a bird,) then, for the purposes of that sentence, that is his one and only super power.  He doesn’t also get to shoot past the crowd (like a bullet) or climb through the pack (like a monkey). 

When we find them, how do we fix our mixed metaphors?

There are many solutions, but basically one of the images has to go.  Using President Obama’s speech as an example:

1. As we consider the road  that we must travel...
2. As we consider the map that unfolds before us…

Metaphorical images can make great speeches as well as great papers, but we have to be sure that— in keeping with the law of comic book characters— each subject gets only one super power.

1 comment:

  1. Great heavens! I love this:
    "Political speeches make easy pickings when it comes to the harvesting of linguistic sour apples".