What are mixed metaphors?

And when do they sound silly?

They emerge from carelessness, or more accurately thoughtlessness



C42C3X Shashi Tharoor Indian novelist and politician pictured at Hay Festival 2011
C42C3X Shashi Tharoor Indian novelist and politician pictured at Hay Festival 2011

By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 7 Jul 2022, 9:02 PM

My column on mixed metaphors elicited some interesting reactions from readers. Are mixed metaphors just bad English, one wanted to know. Not really, is my answer. They emerge from the carelessness, or more accurately thoughtlessness, of people who speak good English, are familiar with two or more expressions but fail to realise the incongruity of jumbling them up together.

This is because modern spoken (and indeed written) English is full of metaphors, several of which seem to mean related things – and yet they sound odd, or even funny, when put together. For instance, “when things really get moving” can be made to sound more interesting and colourful if you say, instead, “when the rubber hits the road” (that is, when you engage your car on a drive and the rubber tyres start moving on the road). And the act of taking tough or uncomfortable decisions lends itself to the military metaphor “biting the bullet” (that is, releasing the cartridge from its pouch in order to shoot with it). But imagine you want to say, “When things really get moving, you will have to take some tough or uncomfortable decisions.” That thought is clear enough, but if you try to express that thought by saying, “When the rubber hits the road, you’ll have to bite the bullet,” it sounds silly, not because your meaning isn’t clear, but because metaphors conjure up an image in the listener or reader’s mind. And a metaphor that comes from driving a car sits oddly with another metaphor that implies firing a gun. That’s why mixed metaphors must be avoided.

It can even get worse. An expression for delaying the taking of decisions, or postponing a difficult choice, is “kicking the can down the road”. But imagine if the offending speaker above added that to the mix and said, “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 kick the can down the road.” A complete jumble of mixed metaphors! Additionally, let’s say he wanted to characterise the issues in question as having unattractive aspects: a common expression for that is “warts and all”, warts being disfiguring growths on a person’s face. Thus our speaker says: “So now what we are dealing with is the rubber meeting the road, and instead of biting the bullet on these issues, whatever their warts may be, we just want to kick the can down the road.” Ridiculous? I am reliably informed that this very sentence was uttered by an American politician a few years ago!

Indeed, Americans tend to be habitual sinners when it comes to mixing metaphors. A Pentagon official once complained that efforts to reform the military were too timid: “It’s just ham-fisted salami-slicing by the bean counters.” A marketing man spoke of “leaving a sour taste in the client’s eye.” Or how about these two classic Americanisms, one from baseball and one from poker, in the same sentence: “It’s time to step up to the plate and lay your cards on the table.”

Before some of you say that I’m making these up, let me cite chapter and verse for a few classic mixed metaphors. The Detroit News actually printed this in 2012: “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.” The then Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, broke all records for mixed metaphors when he told reporters that some 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.” (These were both quoted in The New Yorker, November 26, 2012).

Americans remain a rich source of such solecisms. “Going to hell in a handbasket” is a commonplace expression, though rather devoid of meaning, but when somebody rants, as one politician did, that “this country is going to hell in a handbag”, he elicits laughter, not applause. So watch your tongue and don’t leave your eyes in a handbasket!

wknd@khaleejtimes.com


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