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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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.