Mixed metaphors

“Verdi is the Puccini of music” – this quip attributed to the composer Igor Stravinsky appears in Douglas Hofstadter’s book Metamagical Themas. In a similar vein he adds: “The knee is the Achilles’ heel of the leg”. A well-known humorist, probably inspired by the first sentence, uses the line “Beethoven is the Mozart of classical music”. Looking at a lavishly decorated building, we might say “It seems that Baroque has a renaissance”.

What is common in these humorous and somewhat faulty metaphors? Is there a name for this phenomenon? Are there other good examples?

To explain the obvious, suppose we are using analogies or metaphors of the form “X is Y”, where Y is the “source”, whose attributes we borrow, ascribing them to the “target” X. In this set-up, Y seems to play two roles: one concrete, immediate and one abstract, idealized. In the case of Mozart, the concrete role is that of the 18th century composer, while the abstract role is something along “a widely celebrated, brilliant and prolific, classical master of a genre”. Renaissance is the cultural movement started in Europe in the 14th century, but also the revival of a style, in the case of Renaissance itself, mostly of the classical Greek and Roman. Never mind that in this case the capitalization of the word betrays which meaning we are referring to.

The trick for the faulty metaphor to work (or in this case, for it not to work, i.e. to sound broken and to generate tension and/or humor), seems to hinge on our ability to move back and forth between the two roles, the concrete and the abstract. Furthermore, it is necessary that the analogy is understandable, in other words, that the abstract meaning is well established. In fact, the more overused the metaphor, the better it is for comical effect. The “Achilles’ heel of something” clearly fulfills this requirement. Still, “Shakespeare is the Mozart of English literature” and “Stone-washed jeans are having a renaissance” would be perfectly valid, if not very interesting analogies. To produce the effect we are looking for, we need one more ingredient: if we denote by Y1 and Y2 the concrete, resp. the abstract meanings of the source, we should choose Y in such a way that “X is Y2″ sounds fine, but X and Y1 are somehow clashing, for example, by being members of the same category, or by being downright contradictory. In this way, shifting to the “X is Y1″ meaning feels like falling into a trap.

Since there already exist snowclones, malapropisms, solecisms, contronyms, garden path sentences, it seems unfair that such a clearly delimited phenomenon does not have its own name. Can you suggest one? The examples above are all, in some sense, mixed metaphors, but the mixing happens in a well defined way. What would be a good neologism for metaphors broken in this particular way?

Here are some more examples that loosely fit the same structural pattern, although they are not necessarily funny. Please, let me know, if you can think of more!

  • The queen is the king of chess pieces.
  • The Russian campaign was Napoleon’s Waterloo moment.
  • The lizard you keep in the kitchen has become the elephant in the living room in our relationship.
  • The gold plating is the crown jewel of that necklace.
  • The bald eagle is the canary in the coal mine of the ecosystem.
  • The 700 pound gorilla that escaped the zoo is the 800 pound gorilla.
  • That blue whale has become his white whale.
  • The new fighter jet is the flagship of the army.
  • “Raincoat” is an umbrella term for many different products.
  • Alexander the Great solved the Gordian knot of defeating the Persian army.
  • Theseus performed the herculean task of killing the Minotaur.
  • Euro cents are a dime a dozen.
  • Luxembourg is the Switzerland of Europe.
  • A blue swan would be a black swan.
  • A notebook is a textbook example of a stationery product.
  • Latin was the lingua franca of medieval Europe.
  • The cerebrospinal fluid is the lifeblood of the organism.
  • John Smith is the John Doe of English names.

EDIT:

  • From niklasni1, over at reddit:
    • Humans are the tortoises of the animal kingdom.
  • Noah suggests the term Locaphor. Like it!
  • Another one, similar to some of the above:
    • By crossing the Po, Caesar crossed the Rubicon.
  • cnan1u adds:
    • Copper is the gold standard of electric wires.
  • cnan1u also adds the following:
    • Tobacco is the smoking gun of lung cancer.
    • Women are the founding fathers of feminism.
    • Bison were the bread and butter of early humans.
    • The SI unit is the yardstick of measurement.
    • Espresso is the barista’s cup of tea.

    and many more. Thanks!

8 comments ↓

#1 Noah on 04.14.12 at 11:42 pm

Isn’t the etymological meaning of “metaphor” something like “carrying forward”? Since the crux of the problem is the short (maybe null) distance between the source and target domains, maybe we should call these “locaphors”. It would have the advantage of being a funny near-homophone with another neologism…

#2 Ema Zee on 04.15.12 at 4:36 am

I would call it a metaphoric pun, since the word play depends on the shared meaning similar to that found in a common pun, and often depends on a similar meanings set at cross purposes

#3 cnan1u on 04.15.12 at 12:21 pm

The Ferrari is the Lamborghini of cars.

#4 cnan1u on 04.15.12 at 12:28 pm

The Costa Concordia is the Titanic of modern cruiseboats. arrrrrrrgh!

#5 cnan1u on 04.15.12 at 12:30 pm

Copper is the gold standard of electric wires.

#6 Michael on 04.15.12 at 12:31 pm

These examples are actually unmixed metaphors. For a metaphor to work it has to have two superficially unlike elements to which the author draws a parallel. What’s funny is that these are two almost identical elements. (You can do the same with movie pitches where cross-polination is considered creativity: “Like Die Hard, but in an office building!” comes to mind.) Noah’s “locaphors” is academically proper but I think “same-aphors” is funnier.

#7 cnan1u on 04.15.12 at 3:31 pm

Copper and gold are superficially and internally unlike elements :)

Here are more mixed and unmixed metaphors (warning: some are real groaners):

-Tobacco is the smoking gun of lung cancer.

-Women are the founding fathers of feminism.

-Bison were the bread and butter of early humans.

-Cows are the meat and potatoes of the dairy industry.

-The solar panel is the coal furnace of the 21st century.

-The SI unit is the yardstick of measurement.

-Espresso is the barista’s cup of tea.

-Times Square is the Kamppi of New York.

-Although it was fishy, the salmon was the red herring in the murder mystery.

-Watches were the death knell of clock towers.

-Ballpoints were the writing on the wall for quill pens.

-Coltan is the blood diamond of Congo.

-Typography is the font of knowledge.

-Romance is the geometry of love.

#8 lkozma on 05.04.13 at 5:52 pm

Also related are
Goldwynisms: http://wordsmith.org/words/goldwynism.html
and Berraisms: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Yogi_Berra

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