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It's the Age of Metaphor -- Literally

06/15/2011 03:21 pm ET | Updated Aug 15, 2011

Being a linguistic curmudgeon, I tend to lose my patience with trendy words and phrases. These days I have to bite my lip, for example, when someone comments, "It is what it is." In that way I avoid responding sarcastically with a phrase such as, "How perceptive!" or "What an original observation!" I am curious, though, about how such trends get started.

When and where, for example, did schadenfreude emerge from academic shadows (pun intended) and begin to become almost commonplace in English writing and speech? It is actually a usage I don't much mind, because it economically expresses something that no English word or phrase can. You might catch me using it now and then, but I hope you won't hear me pronounce another annoyingly popular foreign word, faux. Any French-English dictionary will tell you that this is the equivalent of "false," so there is really no reason other than pretentiousness to be carrying on about "faux prophets" or a "faux British accent."

The trendy word that I've noticed most lately is "metaphor." This too used to be confined mainly to academia, but in the past few years it has broken out like a rash among the general population. For the most part, I say send it back to the literature classroom, for it is not only being used too often, but also too often incorrectly -- even by smart people and good writers.

A metaphor is a spoken or written statement of equation between one thing and another thing that are literally very different. It is a "figure of speech," which is not the same as a symbol or emblem or analogy. It is a relation that must be expressed or implied. One classic example is from the English ballad, "The Highwayman": "The moon was a ghostly galleon." Another, which I offered myself as an editor of The New York Times desk reference, is from Thomas Merton: "My eyes are flowers for your tomb." In each case the poet is stating that something is something else, transforming one thing into another through the power of his imagination. His observation is bolder than a comparison. (A college teacher of mine, a poet named John Fandel, one day seemed to have an epiphany in front of the class when he vocalized the thought that "in a sense, every metaphor is a moment of madness!")

But metaphors also occur far from poetry in everyday language. "He's a bull in a china-shop" is a metaphor. So is "She was floating in a revery." But the point is that these identities or relations are presented in words, which most of people who now bounce the word "metaphor" around do not realize. Moreover, unlike a symbol, a metaphor is not one thing that stands for another. It is improper to say that the moon or a rose is a metaphor. A metaphor, being a stated or implied relation between two things, has two parts, known to us snobs as "tenor" and vehicle."

A quick search of the Times of the past 30 days brings up eight uses of "metaphor" (including one wacky reference to "vegetable-metaphor terms") The first is from a letter-writer who states that the convicted Nazi guard John Demjanjuk is "a metaphor for evil and inhumanity." Well, no he isn't. He may be a symbol or representative or incarnation of evil, but he is not a metaphor or part of a metaphor unless some speaker or writer dares to equate him with something, such as evil or an evil country, as in a the phrase, "Germany became Demjanjuk, and Demjanjuk Germany." Likewise, when a normally articulate New York radio host stated recently that a certain song was a metaphor, he was lapsing. "Life is a song" is a metaphor, but not the song itself.

The next Times piece on the list, about a man known as "The Horse Whisperer," contains the statement, "establishing a connection with a horse can be extremely gratifying, and indeed, often become a metaphor for life." Wrong again, and in an article that goes on to quote an actual metaphor from this soft-voiced trainer: "Your horse is a mirror to your soul." I tell you, these misuses are legion, and certainly not restricted to the Times. I recently read a very thoughtful and deeply humane book by a Jesuit priest in which he seems to discover a metaphor on every other page, and seldom correctly. Mea maxima culpa.

The not unexpected corollary to this slovenliness is the constant misuse of "literally," which in about nine cases out of ten is applied to phrases that are in fact figurative -- or metaphorical. In almost all of the cases these gaffes occur when a speaker or writer chooses a figure of speech that has a close relation to what the figure is being compared to -- and then overstates the case, declaring to be literal what is not literal at all. Thus, back at the Times, the estimable Paul Krugman stated a few months back in a column about the federal-budget debate that a Republican proposal to cut nutritional aid to pregnant women and infants was "literally stealing food from the mouths of babes." Really? Are there any pictures of this? Sometimes such results can be quite amusing, like dangling participles. The program-notes for a concert I once attended, for example, informed the audience that Mozart's 38th symphony "set the city of Prague literally on its ear."

I'm reminded of a favorite New Yorker cartoon in which a fellow is sitting beside the hospital bed of another fellow who is trussed and bandaged around the middle of his body. The visitor is speaking: "Why, of course, I've heard the expression countless times. It's just that I've never actually seen it before." The poor bloke had literally broken his ass!