Metaphors are like, everywhere

About a year ago I used some old, discarded lumber to build a pair of  6 foot long, 6 inch deep shelves.   When I first picked up the wood, I decided that the cleaner side of each piece would be the face-up side.  The side with more stains and blemishes would go face-down.    However, after I sanded the wood down with progressively finer grit sandpaper, and then stained and lacquered both faces, I realized that the older, more experienced face had a deeper, more beautiful character to it, and was  in fact the better choice.

plumber-metaphorSome people enjoy metaphors more than other people.  By “metaphors”  I’m refering to the whole range of metaphorical language: similes, analogies, symbols and so on. Some people love metaphors, and see them constantly.  I find myself in that category, especially when I do things like gardening or salvaging lumber.  Planting seeds. Pruning and removing off the weak and dying leaves so that the rest of a plant can be stronger. That sorta thing.

But there are many people who don’t like metaphors at all, and if you try to explain things to them using a metaphor, they will get easily confused or annoyed. I haven’t exactly figured out the pattern in communication or cognitive styles on this… and it’s an important distinction, especially in teaching and training. Maybe it’s like as if you were wandering through a desert and all you had was a telescope and a pad of paper and… oh wait, never mind.

tuttle-student-response-metaphorSelected Google search results:

“Metaphors are Tools”
“Metaphors are a Platform”
“Metaphors are Mindfunnels”
“Metaphors are Taffy’
“Metaphors are like a Box of Sins”

..all so true, though the last one is technically a simile.

200217661-001Metaphors relate to the process of lateral thinking… they are either the product of it, and/or they’re the trigger for it. I dunno… all I know is I require metaphors sometimes, to process a problem or idea. As always, I’m willing to accept research funding and access to some grad students and a MRI scanner, to investigate this. Until then, I guess I will have to be just another would-be-cognitive-theory-pundit.

There is also a blurring point between metaphor, idiom and language. What can start as a popular metaphor/idea-virus, will then break into the body of spoken language and become a common idiom, and, after a while, eventually makes its way into the DNA of the language itself and become written word. Now, the annoyance of elaborate metaphors is counterbalanced by using concrete examples, so before my double-helix-abstraction unravels, here’s an illustration: The phrase “the early bird catches the worm” was a proverb/metaphor which work-life-balance-metaphorseventually yielded the noun “early bird.” The adjective “dogged” is another example. All this to say that metaphors are a natural part of the way we think and construct language. Anyone who says they hate all metaphors is just being bullheaded.

Beyond the cognitive part, another aspect of whether a metaphor resonates with a person has to do with its content. Sports people will enjoy sports metaphors. Foodies will enjoy food metaphors. Interwebs people will enjoy LOLCATZ metaphors. But it’s not just about content, it’s about how that content positioned. The tone and spin of the metaphor will make it more or less palatable to a given audience. A recent example from work:mixedmetaphors

CONTEXT: Teaching about the importance and value of diversity in an organization.
METAPHOR: Nature / Ecosystems
POSSIBLE POSITIONING APPROACH: Diversity is crucial to achieving balance and harmony. Life is richer when we weave together our cultural differences into a beautiful organic tapestry of co-existence, respect and appreciation. So, that’s what being a team is all about. Save the rainforest!
ALTERNATE POSITIONING APPROACH: Diversity is crucial for survival. When an environment comes under stress, it will be more resilient if it incorporates different areas of strength. Mono-cultures risk catastrophic collapse under a single pressure. So, that’s what being a team is all about. Prepare for battle!

Who says metaphors aren’t potent?


About danspira

My blog is at: My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on April 3, 2009, in Communication Skills, Information Design, Learning, Metaphors. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Ah, the metaphorical tribe of mine from whence you come. In this, we are linguistically kindred; let me count the ways. A few years ago I was editor (and somewhat of a language translator) for a Cuban-born, American newspaper publisher.

    Once, while editing her commentary, I encountered a phrase she chose (Incorrectly for her point):
    “That’s the nail hitting the hammer.” ???!???

    Well, I, of course, had to explain that the hammer “hits the nail on the head,” but she resisted that modification so adamantly, that I felt as if the hammer had pounded the nail into my head!

    To this day, I am looking for a real-life example to which her flip-flopping metaphor could apply. Though I am certain that when I come across the right example–of a situation which matches that twisted, analogy/simile/metaphor–it will have something to do with a sadistic, warped tendency of a person or thing that can’t wait to be pummeled by a steel striking tool; but, rather, he/she/it (the nail) rushes to the abuse (the hammer). Oh, that’s right, as editors, we do that all the time. Alas.

    Anyway, love your blog entry. I meandered to it from… who can remember?–having a brain like a sieve these days. (Oh, I recall: sourced from Qstream, formerly SpacedED : )

    • Thank you for this delightful digression… very much appreciated, my friend / fellow member of the metaphorical tribe.

      Yes, “the nail hitting the hammer” sounds like “the fit hitting the shan,” which fits nicely with your image of a nail that can’t wait to be pummelled.. all hell has broken loose, the nails are rioting in the streets, the hammer in its riot gear is steeling itself, getting ready to pound down on them, a gavel delivering the full force of the law.

      Or perhaps this metaphor is really just about Newton’s Third Law of Motion, about the reciprocity of all things… all actions have an equal and opposite reaction — “When a first body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts an equal and opposite force on the first body” that as the giant hammer hits the puny little nail on the head and pushes it into place, the hammer — despite being such a big oaf — feels something, too.

      – “You hit the nail on the head!”
      – “Yes, and I felt it… that nail really hit my hammer.”

      Thanks again, for this!

      • You get a hilariously high-five for your reply, which I could not finish reading sitting down. That’s because I was LMMAO (metaphorical, the extra ‘M’). 

        Now, can you kindly find me a board-certified doctor of Metaphorology to stitch my analogous assimile back on?   Gee, thanks, danspira!  

      • Haha nice… Doctor of Metaphorology… if one can deal with all-the-gorey, you can may some serious figures of speech.

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