Some Metaphors Are Beyond Comparison

By Rob Kyff

February 5, 2020 3 min read

We swim in a sea of metaphors. Our everyday conversations teem with the minnows of comparison: We bite the bullet, go back to the drawing board and miss the boat. As consumers, we're stalked by sharklike, predatory metaphors: Budweiser is the king of beers, we're in good hands with Allstate, and Chevy is the heartbeat of America.

And as readers exploring colorful coral reefs, we're sometimes lucky enough to encounter a breathtaking angelfish. I recently spotted this perfect simile in a memoir by Peter Schjeldahl, the longtime art critic for The New Yorker: "Closeness is impossible between an artist and a critic. Each wants from the other something ... It's like two vacuum cleaners sucking at each other."

You wouldn't expect to find many metaphors and similes in a book about punctuation, but in "Semicolon: The Past, Present and Future of a Misunderstood Mark," Cecelia Watson tickles up some wonderful comparisons.

Three well-placed semicolons, Watson writes, produce a sentence that's "a stone skipping across water, lightly touching it three times, just for a split second, before hopping on."

Grammarians of the late 1800s, she writes, virtually prohibited semicolons, treating them "like a controlled substance."

Watson compares the deft use of a semicolon in a sentence by Raymond Chandler to jockey Ron Turcotte's skilled handling of Secretariat in the 1973 Kentucky Derby: "Chandler reins in that first clause nice and tight and short; and then he lets it go leaping forward, surging with energy and passion."

Likewise, humorist Dave Barry recently poked the hornet's nest of 2019 news and unleashed a swarm of stinging comparisons.

Washington, D.C., he wrote, was "an endlessly erupting scandal volcano, belching out dense swirling smoke plumes of spin, rumor, innuendo, misdirection and lies."

Rep. Adam Schiff "would not look out of place popping up from a prairie-dog hole," and the heated rhetoric emanating from the capital was "like the shouting of the couple in the next-door apartment who never seem to stop arguing ('WHAT ABOUT THE JULY 25TH PHONE CALL?' 'OH YEAH? WHAT ABOUT HUNTER BIDEN?')"

The Robert Mueller investigation, Barry writes, "feels like it began during the French and Indian War," the Dow Jones Industrial Average "flits up and down like a butterfly on meth," and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson "styles his hair with a commercial leaf blower."

From dueling vacuum cleaners to disheveling power tools, the metaphor machines thrum delightfully on.

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Photo credit: 3844328 at Pixabay

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