12 hilarious mixed metaphors you must know

A common error in the use of the language by over-enthusiastic speakers and writers, is a combination of two or more incompatible metaphors

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By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 16 Jun 2022, 6:45 PM

When the Indian newspaper The Hindu ran a headline about rising inflation on June 3, declaring ‘Tomato prices have become a hot potato’, it may have had its tongue firmly in its cheek, but it was also indulging in a mischievous pleasure of the English language — the mixed metaphor.

A mixed metaphor, a common error in the use of the language by over-enthusiastic speakers and writers, is a combination of two or more incompatible metaphors. Obviously, a tomato can’t be a potato, so that’s a mixed metaphor. Mixed metaphors often involve clichés; you might wish to call someone on your team ‘a pillar of strength’ and laud him for ‘forging ahead’, but if you declare that he is a pillar of strength who is forging ahead, you have mixed up your metaphors — a pillar can’t move, let alone forge ahead anywhere.

Modern life offers plenty of examples of such mixed metaphors. Managers are particularly prone to fashionable sounding jargon culled from the latest gurus in order to sound both knowledgeable and decisive, but that can lead them to horribly mix their metaphors. ‘We must iron out the remaining bottlenecks’ is a famous example. Sometimes metaphors get mixed when the speaker accidentally confuses two well-known expressions. ‘You hit the nail right on the head’ and ‘That’s right on the nose’ are both common expressions in English, especially in America. But if you say ‘You hit the nail right on the nose’, you’ve created a mixed metaphor.

Worse still are those examples of mixed metaphors, which involve an error on top of the mixing — when someone inaccurately recalls one of the metaphors he’s mixing and jumbles it with another. This has been dubbed a “malaphor” — a blend of malapropism and metaphor, a term coined by Lawrence Harrison in 1976. One example is ‘We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it’ — an erroneous conflation of two expressions, ‘don’t burn your bridges’ and ‘we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it’. Another hilarious image is conjured up by the malaphor ‘She really stuck her neck out on a limb’ (‘Stuck her neck out’ and ‘went out on a limb’ both make sense, but imagine visualising the combination...)! Or our favourite manager praising a valuable staffer: ‘She is a pearl worth its weight in gold’.

I have collected a few examples of such mixed metaphors over the years. Among my favourites: ‘The sacred cows have come home to roost with a vengeance’ (it’s chickens that come home to roost, not cows!). ‘He’s burning the midnight oil from both ends’ (it’s a candle you burn from both ends when you work too hard and sleep too little).

But the funniest mixed metaphors always involve avoidable mistakes from mis-remembering a cliché. ‘Falling off a log’ and ‘a piece of cake’ are both metaphors for something that’s really easy, but if you say ‘It’s as easy as falling off a piece of cake’, you’ve really made things difficult for yourself. ‘Between a rock and a hard place’ and ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea’ are both familiar metaphors, but don’t announce that someone’s ‘between a rock and the deep blue sea’!

The incongruity of some metaphorical mixes is what makes them sound ludicrous. The woeful widower who lost his children’s mother to illness wanted to elicit sympathy when he lamented that ‘The hand that rocked the cradle has kicked the bucket’, but even his parish priest had to suppress a chuckle. One of history’s most famous examples of a recorded mixed metaphor is from a speech by Sir Boyle Roche (1736-1807) in the Irish Parliament: “Mr. Speaker, I smell a rat. I see him floating in the air. But mark me, sir, I will nip him in the bud.” The speaker was so familiar with the expressions “smell a rat”, “floating in the air” and “nip in the bud” that he got carried away and produced a classically absurd mixed metaphor from all three of them.

So, a simple piece of advice to readers: Keep an eye on your words and an ear to the ground, with a finger on the pulse of your audience, to avoid putting your foot in your mouth!


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