16 rib-tickling mixed metaphors you need to know

And believe it or not, none of these are made up!

By Shashi Tharoor

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Top Stories

Published: Thu 24 Aug 2023, 7:23 PM

Last year we discussed mixed metaphors ­­— what they were, how they come about, and why they don’t work but can cause unwitting hilarity. This week I’m going to provide a number of examples of mixed metaphors that various authors have culled from people’s mistakes in a variety of publications. And believe it or not, none of these are made up!

The world of American politics seems to be particularly fertile territory for rib-tickling mixed metaphors, judging by this selection of on-the-record howlers:

*“So now what we are dealing with is the rubber meeting the road, and instead of biting the bullet on these issues, we just want to punt.”

*“[T]he bill is mostly a stew of spending on existing programs, whatever their warts may be.”

*(Talking about the Democratic presidential candidates): ‘This is awfully weak tea to have to hang your hat on.” (Hanging your hat on something is a popular ready-to-mix metaphor. From the other side politically, MSNBC, on September 3, 2009, declared that Republican arguments were “awfully thin gruel for the right wing to hang their hats on.”

*“The mayor often strips his gears by failing to engage the clutch when shifting what emanates from his brain to his mouth. The bullets he fires too often land in his own feet.”

*A Pentagon staffer, complaining that efforts to reform the military have been too timid: “It’s just ham-fisted salami-slicing by the bean counters.”

*“Top Bush hands are starting to get sweaty about where they left their fingerprints. Scapegoating the rotten apples at the bottom of the military’s barrel may not be a slam-dunk escape route from accountability anymore.”

As a politician myself, albeit not an American one, let me point out that other professions are hardly exempt from mixing their metaphors. Journalism, for instance, gave us such gems as this one on the subways: “The moment that you walk into the bowels of the armpit of the cesspool of crime, you immediately cringe.” Or, from the London Evening Standard: “Her saucer-eyes narrow to a gimlet stare and she lets Mr. Clarke have it with both barrels.”

Then there’s Robert D. Kaplan’s “I wanted a visual sense of the socioeconomic stew in which Al Qaeda flourished,” a sentence which has been described as a “double mixed metaphor.” But the Detroit News went one better with a triple: “I don’t think we should wait until the other shoe drops. History has already shown what is likely to happen. The ball has been down this court before and I can see already the light at the end of the tunnel.”

No less an eminence than the Washington Post, the very paper that coined the term “malaphor”, wrote this spectacular jumble of metaphors in 1992: “The committee was tired of stoking public outrage with fortnightly gobbets of scandal. It decided to publish everything it had left, warts and all. Now everyone is tarred with the same ugly brush, and the myth that forever simmers in the public consciousness — that the House shelters 435 parasitic, fat-cat deadbeats — has received another shot of adrenalin.”

American television, not to be outdone, produced these gems: a failed task “left a sour taste in the client’s eye.” A game-show contestant said his team were “dancing around the bush”. A football coach rued that “It’s just apples versus oranges, and it’s not a level playing field by any means.” The then-Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, remarked that economic data “are guideposts that tell you how we’re going to be shifting the mix of our tools as we try to land this ship in a smooth way onto the aircraft carrier.” The right-wing commentator Rush Limbaugh declared: “I knew enough to realise that the alligators were in the swamp and that it was time to circle the wagons.”

We should conclude with this sage observation quoted by Willard R. Espy in his book The Game of Words: “There is no man so low that he has in him no spark of manhood, which, if watered by the milk of human kindness, will not burst into flames.” I’d better stop before my readers burst into flames themselves!


More news from Lifestyle