THE BLOG

Quotation Maven Mardy Grothe Never Metaphor He Didn't Like

01/13/2014 01:31 pm ET | Updated Mar 03, 2014

If Dr. Mardy Grothe has anything to say about it, your search for the perfect metaphor may be (almost) over.

You might say Grothe, who launched the online Dictionary of Metaphorical Quotations on January 1, is a force of nature. Or that he's like a whirlwind. You might go so far as to say that he is to quotations what Chris Christie is to bullies.

Of course, Grothe is neither a force of nature nor a whirlwind and, thankfully, he's nothing like Chris Christie. But his enlightening presentation of the thousands of wise and witty metaphors, similes and analogies he's collected over the past half century provides metaphorical nutrition for both the scholarly user and the casual peruser.

Grothe sees his work-in-progress as an antidote to the error-riddled quotation sites most of us reflexively rely on -- where a typo can turn a stirring call to action into a cruel joke. ("Give me liberty or give me meth" by Hatrick Henry conjures a wired hockey star rather than a Revolutionary War hero.) As Roger Ebert wrote way back in 1998, "Doing research on the Web is like using a library assembled piecemeal by pack rats and vandalized nightly."

Metaphor is no mere parlor game. For Aristotle, it was something of an IQ test: "The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor," he said. "It is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others; and it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in the dissimilar." Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander's 2013 book Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking argues that analogy -- a form of metaphorical language -- is at the core of what it means to be human. For Buddhists, there is no self, and so self itself is a metaphor.

But one can turn Aristotle on his head (not literally, of course): looking for the similar in the dissimilar may indeed be a gift, but that gift -- that new perspective -- may also obscure important differences, differences that are far more fundamental than any similarity. Gustav Flaubert wrote, "Human language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity."

Metaphor, in other words, has a dark side.

Making Hitler analogies to everyone and everything from President Obama to puppies is ubiquitous enough to have earned two Latin sobriquets: "argumentum ad Hiterum" and "reductio ad Hitlerum." Saying "war" when we talk about "fighting" crime, drugs or cancer is an insult to anyone who's ever fought in an actual war. And in what universe besides our American one is an appointed federal bureaucrat a "czar"?

The best metaphorical language transports us to places we could never have imagined. Stephen Sondheim's lyric to "I Remember" from the 1966 TV musical Evening Primrose re-introduces us to snow: "I remember snow, Soft as feathers, Sharp as thumbtacks, Coming down like lint, And it made you squint, When the wind would blow." Raymond Chandler describes one Miss Adrienne Fromsett in Lady of the Lake thusly: "She looked playful and eager, but not quite sure of herself, like a new kitten in a house where they don't care much about kittens."

Sometimes, though, metaphors go wrong, terribly wrong, and take us to places we wish we'd never imagined. Consider this anti-Rockwellism: "They lived in a typical suburban neighborhood with picket fences that resembled Nancy Kerrigan's teeth" and this ultra-mixed metaphor: "His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free."

Raymond Chandler, if he were alive, would need a stiff drink to endure the noirish, "He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant and she was the East River." Boaters and bowlers would likely join forces to protest this non-image: "The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn't." (Scholars have yet to verify the rumor that the pens of real high school students yielded these gems.)

It's not metaphorical quotations per se that Grothe loves, but rather what he calls "Big Ideas Beautifully Expressed." And while there is clearly a cerebral component to his love of well-phrased thoughts, he says, "It is the power of those thoughts to impact the hearts and minds of people that really drives me. There have been countless times in my life when a powerful idea, powerfully articulated helped me get through difficult times, including a felony conviction when I was a teenager, a painful divorce as a young adult and cancer in middle age." As Robert Frost put it, "An idea is a feat of association, and the height of it is a good metaphor."

Grothe is a successful psychologist and business consultant who's authored many books on wordplay, including" Viva la Repartee, Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit and Wisdom and, not surprisingly, I Never Metaphor I Didn't Like. He hopes eventually to have 100,000 quotations on his site. With a nod to Isaac Newton, he offers metaphorical props to his colleagues in collation: "I stand on the shoulders of innumerable quotation collectors, past and present."