The Magazine

Metaphor Madness

In which a line is drawn in the sand for political journalists.

Jul 16, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 41 • By BARTON SWAIM
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Browsing the children's books at Barnes & Noble the other day, I was exasperated to find so many books based on, or otherwise employing, metaphors.

We know from experience that children, especially young children, take everything literally. But many children's authors have adopted the mistaken supposition that because adults find metaphors useful in learning the lessons of life, children do as well. This is not so. My four-year-old daughter was recently given a book based entirely on an extended metaphor; it's called The Room In My Heart and has to do with a mother's affection for her first daughter even after a second baby is born.

My daughter doesn't like it. She seems to think it involves some cardiological cavity in which a variety of furniture is inserted for reasons having to do with her mom's love. It's frightening, really, from her point of view.

Now I'm as far as one can be from a Rousseauean, but sometimes I think children are, in this respect at least, more intelligent than adults. Why must adults use metaphorical and otherwise figurative language so incessantly, and with so little regard to the demands of clarity? Why must we get things "straight from the horse's mouth" instead of from the original source, "jump ship" instead of abandoning a friend or institution, and "draw a line in the sand" or "lay down the gauntlet" instead of declaring a position on which we're not prepared to compromise?

My wife possesses a strange genius for combining these figurative expressions. "Don't throw the cat out with the bathwater," she once said, and occasionally I still think of that poor screeching cat sailing out the back door with a tubful of dirty bathwater.

But it's not my wife's job to render her observations with clarity and precision. That's the job, or I thought it was, of the nation's political journalists, most of whom can hardly get through a single explanation without recourse to some tired, clumsy metaphor. They're digging up more dirt on the president because they say he hasn't tried to reach across the aisle. They say he's thumbed his nose at the opposition, and turned his back on them. The president's response is that they haven't put anything on the table. He says they're just on a fishing expedition. But he's not out of the woods yet.


About once a month some idiotic metaphor gets nationwide attention. Suddenly the world of punditry descends into another appalling brawl about the thing supposedly signified by the metaphor, and nobody is exactly sure what that thing is. Readers of this magazine will remember the Supreme Court's decision in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2004) in which Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the majority, asserted that "a state of war is not a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the Nation's citizens." For months, it seemed, the talking heads and editorial pages couldn't stop talking about blank checks and whether the president had or wanted one.

Everybody knows what a blank check is. Its holder can cash it for as much money as he wishes, provided sufficient funds. I should point out that, as a mere littérateur, I haven't the slightest clue what all the legal hubbub was all about; but I'm pretty sure that O'Connor's statement was factually identical to the statement that an American president can't legitimately assume the powers of an absolute monarch. Somehow, though, the phrase "blank check" made everybody start talking as though the president had tried to dissolve Congress or suspend habeas corpus or have suspected terrorists shot in their homes in New Jersey. Maybe we needed a good knock-down debate about wartime presidential power. What we got was an argument about a metaphor about a series of claims that hadn't been made. Sometimes these metaphors start to overlap, and confusion becomes comedy. Think of James Baker insisting that the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group be taken as a whole rather than piecemeal. He hoped "we don't treat this like a fruit salad, and say I like this but I don't like that, I like this but I don't like that."

That sound clip became headline news for about 36 hours, and suddenly everybody was arguing about whether the ISG Report was a fruit salad or something else. Maybe it was a pizza, or a steak, or maybe black bean soup; who knew? David Shuster of MSNBC even speculated that Baker's fruit salad simile had been intended as a furtive reference to the accusation that the president had "cherry-picked" prewar intelligence.

"The words 'fruit salad,'" said a grave Shuster, "could be construed as a reference to cherry-picking and to questions about the Bush administration's cherry-picking of prewar intelligence."

Picking cherries out of a fruit salad? I wouldn't have thought cherries were so widely objectionable as that, but my wife tells me that many people don't like them in their fruit salads. In any case, "cherry picking"--and on this I am confident--has to do with picking the best fruit from trees, not the least likeable bits from a fruit salad. A cherry picker is a hydraulic lifting device used to pick fruit from the otherwise inaccessible parts of large trees. Imagine using one of those to get at a fruit salad.

But suppose for a moment that Baker really did want to remind his listeners (as if they needed reminding) that George W. Bush had been repeatedly and energetically accused by his Democratic adversaries of misusing intelligence: a highly doubtful supposition in my mind, but just suppose that's what he would have liked to do. The thought of James Baker, the drawling no-nonsense Texan and former secretary of state, intentionally devising just the right pomological simile to achieve this effect in his listeners' minds is so fantastic as to make one wonder whether David Shuster hasn't missed his calling as a postmodern literary critic.

And what was "cherry-picking" supposed to signify, anyway? I never heard anybody explain how a president, amidst his war cabinet and a sprawling array of undersecretaries and advisers, could plausibly pick only those bits of intelligence he likes and pass over those he doesn't. It seems to me that if you're going to use a metaphor, you ought at some point to be prepared to say exactly what the literal activity looks like. All I ever heard was that blasted metaphor, "cherry-picking."

I had been hoping Nancy Pelosi et al. would put a metaphor reform initiative on the congressional agenda. Ill-conceived metaphors do far more damage than junkets and earmarks, whatever those are.


My daughter would agree.

Barton Swaim is writing a book on 19th-century Scottish literary critics.