Queen’s English – The Tired Metaphor

A metaphor is defined as a figure of speech in which a word or phrase that designates one thing is applied to another in an implicit comparison.  It is a tool to be used with discretion; much more often than not, the metaphor can be a tired cliché.  We are all for colorful, descriptive writing; and when a metaphor is invented, it can be a delight; give credit to the inventor.  When you encounter it for the first time a well-conceived metaphor can not only add color, but it can help paint a fuller verbal picture.

Think of the first time you heard the phrase, it’s not rocket science (circa 1960, perhaps).  Everyone knows that rockets are complex devices and the people who build them can be expected to be bright and creative.  So, whoever first used the phrase created a clever image.  Decades later it’s worn out (run into the ground!); it’s over-worked and can embarrass the person who uses it.

Perhaps the best illustration of a current exhausted metaphor is ahead of the curve.  It is not only used too frequently, but it’s often misused; I’m often tempted to ask “which curve are you referring to”.  I fear the response would be a blank stare.

Ben Yagoda in “How Not to Write Bad” throws out (hmm  —  a baseball metaphor)  the following, which are illustrative of tired metaphors whose use might deaden a sentence:  at the end of the day;  it’s what it is; focus; a stitch in time saves nine; he came to play; he gave 110 percent; Achilles heel; the golden age of print journalism; buttoned down; and bottom line.

This is not to say that all metaphors are bad; before they become clichés and while they are still fresh, they can enhance your prose.  But beware the metaphor that has lasted beyond its expiration date.  It can make your prose seem tired and listless, the very opposite of the effect you probably sought in using it.

This wonderful sentence appeared in a letter addressed to the Boston Globe some years ago:  “In the face of mounting pressure to gut or eliminate the IRS, it continues to shoot itself in the foot by biting the hand that feeds them”.

That’s a boatload of metaphors, all in one sentence:


– In the face of mounting pressure . . .

– to gut

– it continues to shoot itself in the foot

– by biting the hand that feeds them

The use of so many metaphors in a single sentence almost seems satanically intentional, though almost certainly it was intended as straight journalism.  Also, the sentence is close to nonsensical.

In the 1920’s the great modernist architect Mies van der Rohe coined the metaphor less is more which was wonderful but has been beaten to a pulp; it was finally laid to rest in the 1960’s by the post-modernist architect Robert Venuri’s wonderful play on words, less is a bore!

If you discover a clever metaphor while it’s still fresh, before it runs out of steam (aha!) and becomes a cliché, by all means use it.  They can be fun and add an extra dimension to your prose.  But be aware that you’re using one, do so with precision, and avoid those that are tired and overused (exceeding it’s shelf life?) or whose meaning might be different from what you intended.  And, by now, you’ve noted that everything above in italics is a metaphor of one kind or another.


– Ken Butera

Posted in Queen’s English / Latin Lovers