October 19, 2011

The fascist octopus has sung its swan song


What frequently used metaphors make you shudder, dear readers? As George Orwell writes in his oft-quoted essay, “Politics and the English Language”: “The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash — as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot –— it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking.”

This lack of thought causes the reader to rethink why she is reading the author in the first place, which is echoed in How Fiction Works, when James Wood writes, “What people dislike about mixed metaphor is that it tends to combine two different clichés.” In these times the metaphors aren’t just mixed, they’re stale. And herein lies the issue: a lot of metaphors are terrible and unwieldy once put on paper.

For instance, we all know that Thomas Friedman is a man who has frequently found his columns under attack due to his penchant for ridiculous turns of phrase. Gawker had a field day with this passage last month: “Real conservatives would understand that the Tea Party has become the Tea Kettle Party. It is people in real distress about our predicament letting off steam by trying to indiscriminately cut everywhere. But steam without an engine – without a strategic plan for American greatness based on spending cuts, tax reform and investments in tomorrow – will take us nowhere.” Where do we start with this one? We haven’t the slightest idea on how to approach it, so we’ll remain mum. The New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winning author has previously been maligned in Michael Ward‘s McSweeney’s spoof, “Create Your Own Thomas Friedman Op-Ed Column.” And earlier this week, Matt Taibbi at RollingStone.com asked his readers to “find a mixed metaphor in a newspaper column not written by Thomas Friedman.” (NB: Are you ready for the challenge? If so, you could win a shipment of hand-sharpened pencils by our own David Rees, whose book, How to Sharpen Pencils is coming out in the spring.)

We don’t mean to only pick on Friedman, however, even though his metaphors frequently give us apoplexy. We also have trouble digesting Cormac McCarthy‘s similes such as this one in Suttree: “Jimmy Smith was moving through the room like an enormous trained mole collecting the empty cans.” So what are the metaphors, similes, and turns of phrase that drive you crazy? What could you live the rest of your life without reading again? Who are the Worst Offenders of The Written Word?