Wednesday, 13 August 2008

A.W.A.D. - Metaphorical Descriptions of People

Whenever people describe one thing in terms of something else, they are engaging in metaphorical thinking (as when Shakespeare wrote, "All the world's a stage"). When people speak metaphorically, they make a connection between two conceptual domains that, at first glance, don't appear to have much in common with each other. A metaphor is a kind of magical mental changing room, where one thing, for a moment, becomes another, and in that moment is seen in a whole new way.

A popular recent metaphor is carbon footprint. There's no intrinsic relationship between the amount of energy one consumes and the size of one's foot, but as soon as this metaphor was coined, it immediately replaced the previous metaphor on the subject (energy hog). When Howard Cosell said, "Sports is the Toy Department of Life", he helped us look at the sporting world in a fresh and highly original way. Comedian Paul Reiser did the same thing when he once looked over at his wife breastfeeding their first child and thought to himself, "What was once an entertainment center has become a juice bar."

Robert Frost said, "An idea is a feat of association, and the height of it is a good metaphor." Metaphorical thinking is one of the oldest activities of humankind, and one of the most useful when it captures essential features of certain types of people, as in terms like stool pigeon, stalking horse, rainmaker, or the first water. This week we explore metaphorical descriptions of people.

(Dr. Mardy Grothe is a psychologist, author, platform speaker, and quotation anthologist. His most recent book is I Never Metaphor I Didn't Like: A Comprehensive Compilation of History's Greatest Analogies, Metaphors, and Similes, to be published this week. For more, go to

paper tiger
MEANING: One who is outwardly strong and powerful but is in fact powerless and ineffectual.

ETYMOLOGY: Translation of Chinese zhi lao hu, from zhi (paper) + lao hu (tiger). The term is often used to describe countries. In 1956, Chairman Mao of China applied it to the US. Later it was used in the Western press to refer to China and its economy.

loose cannon
MEANING: An uncontrollable or unpredictable person, often causing damage to his own faction.

ETYMOLOGY: From allusion to a cannon broken loose on the deck of a rolling ship.

sacred cow
MEANING: Something that is beyond criticism.

ETYMOLOGY: From the special regard for a cow in the Hindu religion.

MEANING: A newcomer or a beginner at something, one not used to hardships.

ETYMOLOGY: Originally the term was applied to newcomers to ranching and mining districts in the western US. A tenderfoot is quite different from a tenderloin.

dark horse
PRONUNCIATION: (dark hors)
MEANING: Someone little-known who ends up winning a contest unexpectedly.

ETYMOLOGY: From the idea of a relatively unknown horse winning a race. The term is also used for a person who unexpectedly wins a party's nomination for a political contest, often as a compromise candidate. The OED shows the first citation of the term from the novel The Young Duke by the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli.

No comments: