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Figurative language, metaphors, & clichés

“Metaphors are fine, but avoid clichés like the plague”
First published September 11, 1992

“Clichés: Should we avoid them like the plague?”
First published February 2, 2001


First published September 11, 1992

 Metaphors are fine, but avoid clichés like the plague

By Stephen Wilbers

The person who first looked out the window and exclaimed, "Look! It’s raining cats and dogs!" introduced a wonderful figure of speech into the English language. Who would have thought to capture the essence of a downpour by comparing it to animals tumbling pell-mell from the sky?

It was a brilliant metaphor (a figure of speech containing an implied comparison) – when it was first used. But now, after billions of repetitions, the comparison has lost its luster. Over time it has become a dull, worn-out cliché.

("Cliché," by the way, comes from the French word for the "stereotype" plate used in printing. In reference to language, a "cliché" is a phrase or expression used so frequently that it has become trite and tedious.)

In all kinds of writing – from business writing to technical, legal, academic, and creative writing – you face a predicament. How do you know when to use a metaphor to help you express your thought more vividly and memorably? And how can you tell when a once-original metaphor has crossed the line and become a tired and worn-out cliché?

It may help to consider some examples.

Here’s a good metaphor: "The state is at a crossroads." That was written by a budget analyst in the State Department of Finance. She used the image of "a crossroads" to emphasize the need to choose between a policy based on lower spending and one based on higher taxes.

Here’s a bad metaphor: "We want to hire only the best applicants, so we are cherry picking the cream of the crop." That was written by a personnel manager of a trucking firm. He used the image of "cherry picking" to underscore his company’s emphasis on quality.

Here’s a terrible metaphor: "Given our employees’ tendency to fly off the handle, we must nip their outbursts in the bud before they run rampant." That was written by the president of a Minneapolis consulting firm (me). I used it to illustrate how a truly rotten metaphor can be made even worse by mixing images – and as William Safire reminds us, "Take the bull by the hand, and don’t mix metaphors."

I don’t mean to ride a dead horse, but sometimes even seemingly good metaphors can backfire if they are used too frequently. George Ball, former chair of Prudential-Bache Securities Inc., was so famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) for his colorful and quirky memos that they came to be called "Ballisms" or "Ballspeak." He once described his recently downsized company as a lean, light "cruiser" darting about among Wall Street’s fat battleships. In subsequent memos he referred to this new profile as "Light Cruiserism."

Not everyone, however, appreciated the colorful comparison. As reported by The Wall Street Journal, some employees got "seasick": "One colleague returned a light-cruiser memo to Mr. Ball with the message, ‘If I see the light cruiser-stormy seas analogy again, I think the whole crew will toss their cookies over the ship.’"

Why does one metaphor work and another fail? Why does one reinforce the author’s message and another detract from it?

The answer, in my opinion, is simplicity. Some of the most famous metaphors in the English language are also the most natural. Consider, for example, Shakespeare’s metaphor, "All the world’s a stage," or these similes (metaphors that use "like" or "as"): "O my love’s like a red, red rose" (Robert Burns), "My heart is like a singing bird" (Christina Rossetti), and "I wandered lonely as a cloud" (William Wordsworth).

Here’s my advice: Use metaphors that reinforce or clarify your meaning without distracting your reader. Show restraint. Most often, the metaphors that flop are the ones that are overdone, contrived, or inappropriate for the subject or context. There is a critical difference between a metaphor that makes a gentle turn in the road and one that reaches out a giant hand and slaps you in the face. (Ouch!)

I ask you: Which of those last two metaphors worked for you?

 

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First published February 2, 2001

Clichés: Should we avoid them like the plague?

By Stephen Wilbers

Like many children growing up in the ’50s, I sometimes watched too much television. I remember my Mom telling me, "That’s enough TV for today. Go outside and play with your clichés."

Although I may have wanted to see the end of The Howdy Doody Show or find out how Hopalong Cassidy turned out, once outside I was always happy to be reunited with my pals, those wonderful, familiar words and phrases like thunderstruck and a level playing field.

I would imagine myself drifting with the tides of time, or being in the same boat with Popeye the Sailor, searching far and wide for Olive Oyl, and protecting her from that bully Brutus, which meant pulling no punches and giving him his just deserts.

Sometimes I would sort these colorful expressions into piles according to type:

Alliterative or rhyming phrases, such as first and foremost, few and far between, high and dry, and holy moly.

Proverbial expressions, such as a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, an apple a day keeps the doctor away, and the exception proves the rule.

Figurative phrases, such as at the end of the day, leave no stone unturned, hit the nail on the head, and I’m all thumbs.

Quotations, such as to be or not to be, we have met the enemy and it is us, a day of infamy, the iron curtain, and ask not what your country . . .

Allusions to myth or history, such as between Scylla and Charybdis, Faustian, Gordian knot, Achilles’ heel, Pyrrhic victory, and Luddite.

Foreign phrases, such as tete-a-tete, coup de grace, and vis-a-vis.

Legalisms, such as cease and desist, null and void, each and every, and suffer and permit.

Some are words or phrases "clinched by sound alone"; others are images "caught in the popular fancy," as described by Sheridan Baker in The Practical Stylist (and quoted by Bryan Garner in The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style).

Ah, those happy days with my clichés. But that’s another story. Now that I’m grown up (please, no derisive comments), the only thing I hear about clichés is that you should avoid them like the plague.

Don’t you sometimes wonder, though, if all those familiar phrases are so worthless, why do they refuse to die a graceful death? I’m not saying that every one of them is the apple of our eye, but there must be something about them we find appealing.

They may be trite, but their meaning is clear. And although raining cats and dogs may not be a fresh image, it’s playful.

Perhaps the best way to use a cliché is to take a standard phrase and give it a twist, to take the old and make it new.

For example, if you drop your marker while making a presentation, you might say, "Sorry. I washed my hands this morning and I can’t do a thing with them."

Or if you’re describing different genres of music, you might add some rhythm to your words by writing "the good pop, the bad hip-hop, and the not-so-ugly blues."

Or if you’re writing advertising copy for the Thanksgiving-Christmas buying season, you might write "Dashing to and fro to find the right presents? Relax. We’re here to make holiday shopping fun, fast, and easy."

You don’t have to be traveling in one-horse open sleigh to catch the cadence of that opening phrase.

 

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