Block that metaphor!

The New Yorker may be a bastion of long-form journalism, but some of its funniest content is very short: those column-fillers whose headline this post has borrowed in homage. They’re poorly edited quotations from small-town (and sometimes big-city) newspapers, government documents, police blotters and such, collected with one purpose: to make readers laugh.

From the Feb. 2 issue, a case of ill-considered speech:

“The world of 7:30 on Tuesday nights, that’s dead,” Fincher said during an interview at his offices in Hollywood. “A stake has been driven through its heart, its head has been cut off, and its mouth has been stuffed with garlic.”

The stake, the decapitation and the garlic are parts of the procedure for killing vampires once and for all. (That’s an idiom meaning permanently.) They have little to do with Fincher’s topic, television viewing patterns. As a metaphor, they struck someone at The New Yorker as being over the top (excessive).

A metaphor is a word or phrase — a verbal image, if you will — used as a symbol for what the writer really means. (A simile uses like or as to make the comparison;  a metaphor stands on its own.) Metaphors are fine when used sparingly; mixing them is not. A mixed metaphor “combines different images or ideas in a way that is foolish or illogical,” according to It results in laughter — on the copy desk if you’re lucky, in public if you’re not.

My first post of fall semester quoted a business story from a second-year student (now a proud alum):

With buybacks’ momentum cooling down in the third quarter of 2014 . . .
Once again: momentum is a force in physics, a moving object’s mass multiplied by its speed, while cooling down refers to temperature. Momentum does not cool down, but rather slows down (better yet, just slows).


Another December graduate wrote last semester:

The American company has been tailoring Chinese consumers’ palates.

Actually, if it was tailoring anything, it was tailoring its product to Chinese palates. (Tailoring palates = changing tastes.) But tailor, noun or verb, refers to the clothing business, not the food industry. While Merriam-Webster does recognize a second definition — “to make or change (something) so that it meets a special need or purpose” — the use of tailor here comes dangerously close to mixed metaphor. The writer could have chosen a more all-purpose word:

The American company has been adapting to Chinese consumers’ palates.


Tow-Knight fellows in entrepreneurial journalism spend a lot of time studying the “media ecosystem” and seem especially prone to mixing in other metaphors:

The Guardian has already built strong, solid pillars in the digital and multimedia ecosystem.

The Hispanic audience is a time bomb for the America media ecosystem.

Yes, ecosystem can mean an interconnected network, but it still brings environmental images to mind — not so much architectural ones or weaponry. (And it’s not clear how the Hispanic audience is likely to explode — in population, perhaps, but would that be destructive, like a time bomb?) So maybe the Guardian has established a strong, solid presence in the ecosystem, and maybe the Hispanic audience is an important factor.




One Response to “Block that metaphor!”

  1. Muhavare
    March 25, 2016 at 2:46 am #

    Too funny post Diane, I love to read about metaphors all the time, but you made my day. Thank you.

    Emily Muhavare, UK