Saturday, February 22, 2014

Mixed Metaphor: mix them like something that you can’t mix

Mixed Metaphor: mix them like something that you can’t mix

George Orwell disparages mixed metaphors in his  famous essay, Politics and the English Language, but we don’t have to regard the man who wrote Animal Farm and 1984 as someone who knows what he is talking about. After all, he was English, and therefore way too strict on our poor tongues—he wanted English to remain English and not become American. Well, this is America, and we will do what we want. Including mix our metaphors all we want, until they are all slushed up like cookie-dough. (We really don’t want to be British. I used to be an Anglophile and, then I became friends with a young Brit, who admits that people still say “Low-born” in England when referring to someone who isn’t tasteful. Horrifying.) Anyway, what is Animal Farm if not one very long mixed-up metaphor?

I say all this because there was an earlier post on this very blog claiming that mixed metaphors are bad. The post claims that Obama said in his inaugural speech “As we consider the road that unfolds before us…” and that this is wrong. I have to ask, how many people were listening to that speech, and thought, “Yes, yes, yes, OH WAIT! A mixed metaphor! That does not make sense! I’m so hung up on that, it is detracting from my speech-listening experience.”

The thing about mixed metaphors is often they are silly, but just as often they have a place. What could Obama have said in the speech instead? The previous posts suggests “1. Our country’s future is like a road that we will follow,” or “2. Our country’s future is like a map that is unfolding,” so as not to mix metaphors—but that would have distracted me, and I believe most colloquial listeners from the speech even more. It’s so formal that it sounds clunky. What’s with that—the future like a map? I can’t imagine it because I, like most people, live in linear dimensions of time and space, and maps are not linear. Or are we supposed to follow a road that doesn’t exist yet? It is much easier for me to imagine a road literally unfolding before me, and leading the way—there are enough movies that make these seemingly impossible mixed metaphors quite easy to see (for example Inception, or car commercials).

Anyway, speeches meant for the general public are meant to be accessible more than they are meant to make sense. Anyone who follows politics knows this. I once made a hobby of listening to the greatest speeches of all time—and they are great—but hardly make any sense. Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech has many mixed metaphors, but it is still considered by many (including me) to be the greatest speech of all time. In the speech King mixes metaphors like a blender mixes soup. For example he says, "Seared in the flames of withering injustice." Technically, you can't both sear and wither anything at the same time, but it is very strong language and it does the job better than "Seared in the flames of injustice" would do by itself. (King also says "rise to a path" in a very similar mixed-metaphor to Obama's.)

The thing is, is that while the psychical does not mix metaphors (nothing withers and sears), the human brain does. Most people have some degree of synesthesia which makes me think the word lollipop is purple and sounds like exactly what it is. Synesthesia might explain why we humans make any metaphors to begin with (Vladimir Nabokov had intense synesthesia, which partially explains why his writing is so lush) so why should we restrict our naturally mixed-up brains and thought?

Metaphors don’t need to be like lame superheroes who only get one power.  They don’t need to be like that speeding bullet guy, or that guy who talks to fish (so lame I don’t even remember their names) instead they can be like the greatest superhero of all time, who is both a bird, and a plane: Superman.

If that hasn’t convinced you, read Alice in Wonderland, if you hate it, okay, that’s fine, but you are never allowed to say anything “Looks delicious!” again. Instead you will have to say, (with a British accent) “That looks, good sir and/or madam, as if it will taste quite palatable upon my taste-buds.”

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