I started today the same as I start every other day—lying in bed with the newspaper and my morning hot chocolate. (With a handful of fresh raspberries, though, since it’s July and I’m in the Northwest. Yum!) I save the comics until last. They are my morning dessert.
This morning, I only got as far as Rex Morgan, that funny paper doctor who has been a handsome 38 for the past 50 years. He’s giving the mayor bad news, but encouraging him to run for reelection all the same. The mayor isn’t so sure. He says, “If they smell blood, they’ll throw me under the bus.” I had my Wednesday writing blog.
Mixed metaphors. Rex Morgan’s mayor stumbled right into one and never even knew it.
First, let’s define terms. A metaphor is an analogy between two objects or ideas that helps us grasp that idea. (“The wolf stood motionless, a statue in the moonlight.”) Metaphorical words or phrases can be used in place of another word to represent that idea in a more powerful way. (“Amelia ate like a hog.”)
Writers love metaphors. They’re fun, they’re picturesque, and they make us look clever. Used carefully and well, they can enhance our writing, put a glistening shine on our word pictures, and show our thoughts in novel ways. Used poorly, they make us look like—well, dopes. (I collect mixed metaphors, which is handy since I want to give you specific examples today.)
A poor way to use metaphors is to plunge headlong into clichés that as are as old as dirt. Worse is to mix metaphors. That is, to use different pictures in the same idea, especially the same sentence, to express the one idea. It confuses the issue and seldom comes out in the wash. Still worse are mixed metaphors that throw pieces of different clichés together. A baseball player demonstrated this well when he said, “I can read him like an open can of worms.” Worst of all are mixed metaphors of mangled pieces of clichés. “A rolling stone is worth two in the moss.”
Of course, it’s not just writers who succumb to mixed-metaphoritis. Politicians are classic sufferers. Al Gore reminded us, “A leopard can’t change his stripes.” But politicians aren’t alone. A photographer warned against “Biting the hand that rocks the cradle.” Actor Ray Romano spoke of his “dirty laundry coming home to roost.” And if you ever doubted the words of Rush Limbaugh, rest assured that, “I knew enough to realize that the alligators were in the swamp and that it was time to circle the wagons.”
Thank you, Rex Morgan, for showing us the way. I realize that “I’m getting up on my feedbox” here. But once we look at it, I think you’ll agree that the problem of mixed metaphors is “as plain as the egg on your face.”
Fortunately, the answer is not as difficult as “pulling hen’s teeth.” It is simply a matter of understanding what metaphors are, then carefully evaluating each one before “the cows come home to roost.”
“If you let that sort of thing go on, your bread and butter will be cut right out from under your feet.”
Ernet Bevin, British Foreign Minister