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Metaphors overrated or underused?

June 2, 2011

Metaphors are not just for poets, they are present in our language every day.  When you say that someone roared with rage, you don’t usually mean that they actually roared; the metaphor brings a large scary animal to mind.  Even expressions like prices going up and feeling downhearted are metaphorical.  We accept that up is more or good and down is less or bad and transfer them into speech and writing without the need to explain them.

These feel logical to us but they are just cultural conventions. As I understand it, our notion that the future is in front of us and the past behind is not shared by the Chinese.  If anybody reading this can confirm or deny this with authority, I would be fascinated to hear from you.

So, writing without metaphors would be quite difficult to do, and extremely dull to read.  What about more original, colourful metaphors?  Let’s have some examples that add interest in a concise way.

I am using the Independent newspaper of 1 June for examples.

Example 1: Inject

Steve Connor, the science editor, writes about earthquakes near Blackpool which have been triggered by shale gas drilling.  The process involves injecting fluids underground under pressure.  This is a literal use of the word ‘injecting’ but it made me think about its usefulness as a metaphor.  You can inject energy into a discussion or money into a project. So much more vivid than ‘introduce’ or ‘put’.  By the way, ‘triggered’ is another metaphor.

Example 2: Stream or waterfall

The World Cup provides three revenue streams to Fifa – media rights, sponsorship and hospitality. ” These are not so much streams as waterfalls the size of Niagara.”

The movement of water is a rich source of metaphor; varied, international and evocative.  I like the way the Independent writer, Tim Rich, used the word ‘streams’ in a conventional way that I wouldn’t have noticed and then shoved it right in my face.

Example 3:Vast pool

Mark Steel managed to make an article about pensions readable with his cynical wit. He says that modern government strategy seems to be that “we should spend our lives in vast pools of debt”.  Water again – but doesn’t it feel like a pool you don’t know how to climb out of?

The real laugh out loud in this article came from the unlikely 23 year-old who says “Ooh no, you go to Glastonbury if you like but I’m putting that revenue into my care home fund. You might think you’re enjoying yourself but you’ll regret it in 73 years when I’m the one getting sponged down regular.”  Not strictly metaphorical perhaps but creates a strong visual image for me none the less.

Pay attention to  metaphors, use them to spice up your writing and tell us about your favourites here.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. penman permalink
    June 3, 2011 14:17

    Metaphors are the stuff of literary writing and I think you put your finger on it (to use a metaphor) when you say they help us strongly imagine a concept or message. We ‘feel’ something through a metaphor. But in some instances they are dangerous. Whenever I see the word ‘climate’ used, it is often inappropriate: ‘In this climate of uncertainty…’ To put something concrete (such as climate, which is measurable) with an abstract (such as uncertainty) is not a useful metaphor. In this instance I might change ‘climate’ to ‘period’ – and get a more meaningful and useful result. As ever, a good metaphor is the thing. And good metaphors contribute to good writing.

  2. June 6, 2011 14:49

    Good blog, Jane. I love metaphors – I think it was Aristotle who said “the thing to be is a master of metaphor”. One of my favourites I saw in my local chiropractors clinic encouraging parents to bring their children for treatment: “the pressure the chiropractor uses on a baby is about the same that you would use to test a ripe tomato”

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