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H.W. Fowler (1858–1933). The King’s English, 2nd ed. 1908.

Chapter III. Airs and Graces


STRICTLY speaking, metaphor occurs as often as we take a word out of its original sphere and apply it to new circumstances. In this sense almost all words can be shown to be metaphorical when they do not bear a physical meaning; for the original meaning of almost all words can be traced back to something physical; in our first sentence above, for instance, there are eight different metaphors. Words had to be found to express mental perceptions, abstract ideas, and complex relations, for which a primitive vocabulary did not provide; and the obvious course was to convey the new idea by means of the nearest physical parallel. The commonest Latin verb for think is a metaphor from vine-pruning; ‘seeing’ of the mind is borrowed from literal sight; ‘pondering’ is metaphorical ‘weighing’. Evidently a metaphor of this kind is quite different in origin from such a phrase as ‘smouldering’ discontent; the former we may call, for want of a better word, ‘natural’ metaphor, as opposed to the latter, which is artificial. The word metaphor as ordinarily used suggests only the artificial kind: but in deciding on the merits or demerits of a metaphorical phrase we are concerned as much with the one class as the other; for in all doubtful cases our first questions will be, what was the writer’s intention in using the metaphor? is it his own, or is it common property? if the latter, did he use it consciously or unconsciously? This distinction, however, is useful only as leading up to another. We cannot use it directly as a practical test: artificial metaphors, as well as natural ones, often end by becoming a part of ordinary language; when this has happened, there is no telling to which class they belong, and in English the question is complicated by the fact that our metaphorical vocabulary is largely borrowed from Latin in the metaphorical state. Take such a word as explain: its literal meaning is ‘spread out flat’: how are we to say now whether necessity or picturesqueness first prompted its metaphorical use? And the same doubt might arise centuries hence as to the origin of a phrase so obviously artificial to us as ‘glaring inconsistency’. Our practical distinction will therefore be between conscious or ‘living’ and unconscious or ‘dead’ metaphor, whether natural or artificial in origin: and again, among living metaphors, we shall distinguish between the intentional, which are designed for effect, and the unintentional, which, though still felt to be metaphors, are used merely as a part of the ordinary vocabulary. It may seem at first sight that this classification leaves us where we were: how can we know whether a writer uses a particular metaphor consciously or unconsciously? We cannot know for certain: it is enough if we think that he used it consciously, and know that we should have used it consciously ourselves; experience will tell us how far our perceptions in this respect differ from other people’s. Most readers, we think, will agree in the main with our classification of the following instances; they are taken at random from a couple of pages of the Spectator. These we should call dead: ‘his views were personal’; ‘carry out his policy’; ‘not acceptable to his colleagues’; ‘the Chancellor proposed’; ‘some grounds for complaint’‘refrain from talking about them’; ‘the remission of the Tea-duty’; ‘sound policy’; ‘a speech almost entirely composed of extracts’‘reduction of taxation’; ‘discussion’; ‘the low price of Consols’; ‘falls due’; ‘succeeded’; ‘will approach their task’; ‘delivered a speech’; ‘postponing to a future year’. The next are living, but not intentional metaphor; the writer is aware that his phrase is still picturesque in effect, but has not chosen it for that reason: ‘a Protestant atmosphere’; ‘this would leave a margin of £122,000′; ‘the loss of elasticity’ in the Fund; ‘recasting our whole Fiscal system’; ‘to uphold the unity of the Empire’; ‘to strengthen the Exchequer balances’; ‘all dwelt on the grave injury’; ‘his somewhat shattered authority’; ‘the policy of evasion now pursued’‘throws new light on the situation’; ‘a gap in our fiscal system’. Intentional metaphors are of course less plentiful: ‘the home-rule motion designed to “draw” Sir Henry’; ‘a dissolving view of General Elections’; ‘this reassuring declaration knocks the bottom out of the plea of urgency’; ‘the scattered remnants of that party might rally after the disastrous defeat’. One or two general remarks may be made before we proceed to instances. It is scarcely necessary to warn any one against over-indulgence in intentional metaphor; its effects are too apparent. The danger lies rather in the use of live metaphor that is not intentional. The many words and phrases that fall under this class are all convenient; as often as not they are the first that occur, and it is laborious, sometimes impossible, to hit upon an equivalent; the novice will find it worth while, however, to get one whenever he can. We may read a newspaper through without coming upon a single metaphor of this kind that is at all offensive in itself; it is in the aggregate that they offend. ‘Cries aloud for’, ‘drop the curtain on’, ‘goes hand in hand with’, ‘a note of warning’, ‘leaves its impress’, ‘paves the way for’, ‘heralds the advent of’, ‘opens the door to’, are not themselves particularly noisy phrases; but writers who indulge in them generally end by being noisy. Unintentional metaphor is the source, too, of most actual blunders. Every one is on his guard when his metaphor is intentional; the nonsense that is talked about mixed metaphor, and the celebrity of one or two genuine instances of it that come down to us from the eighteenth century, have had that good effect. There are few obvious faults a novice is more afraid of committing than this of mixed metaphor. His fears are often groundless; many a sentence that might have stood has been altered from a misconception of what mixed metaphor really is. The following points should be observed.
  1. If only one of the metaphors is a live one, the confusion is not a confusion for practical purposes.
  2. Confusion can only exist between metaphors that are grammatically inseparable; parallel metaphors between which there is no grammatical dependence cannot result in confusion. The novice must beware, however, of being misled either by punctuation or by a parallelism that does not secure grammatical independence. Thus, no amount of punctuation can save the time-honoured example ‘I smell a rat: I see him hovering in the air:… I will nip him in the bud’. Him is inseparable from the later metaphors, and refers to the rat. But there is no confusion in the following passage; any one of the metaphors can be removed without affecting the grammar:
    This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,… This fortress built by Nature for herself… This happy breed of men, this little world, This precious stone set in the silver sea,… This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England, This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,…
  3. Metaphor within metaphor is dangerous. Here there is a grammatical dependence between the metaphors, and if the combination is unsuitable confusion will result. But combination is one thing, and confusion is another: if the internal metaphor is not inconsistent with the external, there is no confusion, though there may be ugliness. To adapt one of our examples below, ‘The Empire’s butcher (i. e. New Zealand) has not all his eggs in one basket’ is not a confusion, because a metaphorical butcher can have his eggs in one basket as well as any one else. What does lead to confusion is the choice of an internal metaphor applicable not to the words of the external metaphor, but to the literal words for which it is substituted. In the following example, the confusion is doubtless intended.
    This pillar of the state Hath swallowed hook and bait.
    The swallowing is applicable only to the person metaphorically called a pillar.
  4. Confusion of metaphor is sometimes alleged against sentences that contain only one metaphor—a manifest absurdity. These are really cases of a clash between the metaphorical and the non-metaphorical. A striking or original metaphor is apt to appear violent, and a commonplace one impertinent, if not adequately borne out by the rest of the sentence. This we may label ‘unsustained metaphor’. It sometimes produces much the same effect as mixed metaphor; but the remedy for it, as well as the cause, is different. Mixed metaphor is the result of negligence, and can generally be put right by a simple adaptation of the language to whichever metaphor is to be retained. Unsustained metaphor is rather an error of judgement: it is unsustained either because it was difficult to sustain, or because it was not worth sustaining; in either case abandonment is the simplest course.
    This diverting incident contributed in a high degree to the general merriment.
Here we have four different metaphors; but as they are all dead, there is no real confusion.
This, as you know, was a burning question; and its unseasonable introduction threw a chill on the spirits of all our party.
Burning and chill are both live metaphors, they are grammatically connected by its, and they are inconsistent; there is therefore confusion.
The uncertainty which hangs over every battle extends in a special degree to battles at sea.—Spectator.
Extends is usually dead; and if in this case it is living, it is also suitable.
A centre and nucleus round which the scattered remnants of that party might rally after the disastrous defeat.—Spectator.
The main or external metaphor is that of an army. Now any metaphor that is applicable to a literal army is also applicable to a metaphorical one: but ‘rally round a nucleus’ is a confusion of metaphor, to whichever it is applied; it requires us to conceive of the army at the same time as animal and vegetable, nucleus being literally the kernel of a nut, and metaphorically a centre about which growth takes place. An army can have a nucleus, but cannot rally round it.
Sir W. Laurier had claimed for Canada that she would be the granary and baker of the Empire, and Sir Edmund Barton had claimed for Australia that she would be the Empire’s butcher; but in New Zealand they had not all their eggs in one basket, and they could claim a combination of the three.
This is quoted in a newspaper as an example of mixed metaphor. It is nothing of the kind: they in New Zealand are detached from the metaphor.
We move slowly and cautiously from old moorings in our English life, that is our laudable constitutional habit; but my belief is that the great majority of moderate churchmen, to whatever political party they may belong, desirous as they are to lift this question of popular education out of the party rut,…
‘A rut’, says the same newspaper, ‘is about the very last thing we should expect to find at sea, despite the fact that it is ploughed’. There is no mention of ruts at sea; the two metaphors are independent. If the speaker had said ‘Moderate churchmen, moving at length from their old moorings, are beginning to lift this question out of the party rut’, we should have had a genuine confusion, the moorings and the rut being then inseparable. Both this sentence and the preceding one, the reader may think, would have been better without the second metaphor; we agree, but it is a question of taste, not of correctness.
…the keenest incentive man can feel to remedy ignorance and abolish guilt. It is under the impelling force of this incentive that civilization progresses.—Spectator.
This illustrates the danger of deciding hastily on the deadness of a metaphor, however common it may be. Probably any one would have said that the musical idea in incentive had entirely vanished: but the successive attributes keenness and impelling force are too severe a test; the dead metaphor is resuscitated, and a perceptible confusion results.
Her forehand drive—her most trenchant asset.—Daily Mail.
Another case of resuscitation. Trenchant turns in its grave; and asset, ready to succumb under the violence of athletic reporters, has yet life enough to resent the imputation of a keen edge. As the critic of ‘ruts at sea’ might have observed, the more blunt, the better the assets.
And the very fact that the past is beyond recall imposes upon the present generation a continual stimulus to strive for the prevention of such woes.—Spectator.
We impose a burden, we apply a stimulus. It looks as if the writer had meant by a short cut to give us both ideas; if so, his guilt is clear; and if we call impose a mere slip in idiom, the confusion is none the less apparent.
Sword of the devil, running with the blood of saints, poisoned adder, thy work is done.
These are independent metaphors; and, as thy work is done is applicable to each of them, there is no confusion.
In the hope that something might be done, even at the eleventh hour, to stave off the brand of failure from the hide of our military administration.—Times
To stave off a brand is not, perhaps, impossible; but we suspect that it would be a waste of energy. The idea of bulk is inseparable from the process of staving off. The metaphor is usually applied to literal abstract nouns, not to metaphorical concretes: ruin and disaster one can suppose to be of a tolerable size; but a metaphorical brand does not present itself to the imagination as any larger than a literal one. We assume that by brand the instrument is meant: the eleventh hour is all too early to set about staving off the mark. This is a good example of mixed metaphor of the more pronounced type; it differs only in degree from some of those considered above. We suggested that impose a stimulus was perhaps a short cut to the expression of two different metaphors, and the same might be said of staving off the brand. But we shall get a clearer idea of the nature of mixed metaphor if we regard all these as violations of the following simple rule: When a live metaphor (intentional or unintentional) has once been chosen, the words grammatically connected with it must be either (a) recognizable parts of the same metaphorical idea, or one consistent with it, or (b) unmetaphorical, or dead metaphor; literal abstract nouns, for instance, instead of metaphorical concretes. Thus, we shall impose not the stimulus, but either (a) the burden of resistance, or (b) the duty of resistance; and we shall stave off not the ‘brand’ but the ‘ignominy of failure from our military administration’. But from our remarks in 4 above, it will be clear that (b), though it cannot result in confusion of metaphor, may often leave the metaphor unsustained. Our examples illustrate several common types.
Is it not a little difficult to ask for Liberal votes for Unionist Free-traders, if we put party interests in the front of the consideration?—Spectator. May I be allowed to add a mite of experience of an original Volunteer in a good City regiment?—Spectator. But also in Italy many ancient edifices have been recently coated with stucco and masked by superfluous repairs.—Spectator. The elementary schools are hardly to be blamed for this failure. Their aim and their achievement have to content themselves chiefly with moral rather than with mental success.—Spectator. The scourge of tyranny had breathed his last. The means of education at the disposal of the Protestants and Presbyterians of the North were stunted and sterilized.—Balfour. I once heard a Spaniard shake his head over the present Queen of Spain.—(Quoted by Spectator.) But, apart from all that, we see two pinching dilemmas even in this opium case—dilemmas that screw like a vice—which tell powerfully in favour of our Tory views.—De Quincey.
The reader who is uncharitable enough to insist upon the natural history of dilemmas will call this not unsustained metaphor, but a gross confusion; horns cannot be said to screw. We prefer to believe that De Quincey was not thinking of the horns at all; they are a gratuitous metaphorical ornament; dilemma, in English at any rate, is a literal word, and means an argument that presents two undesirable alternatives. The circumstances of a dilemma are, indeed, such as to prompt metaphorical language, but the word itself is incorrigibly literal; we confess as much by clapping horns on its head and making them do the metaphorical work.
These remarks have been dictated in order that the importance of recognizing the difference and the value of soils may be understood.—J. Long.
This metaphor always requires that the dictator—usually a personified abstract—should be mentioned. ‘Dictated by the importance’. The opposite fault of over-conscientiousness must also be noticed. Elaborate poetical metaphor has perhaps gone out of fashion; but technical metaphor is apt to be overdone, and something of the same tendency appears in the inexorable working-out of popular catchword metaphors:
Tost to and fro by the high winds of passionate control, I behold the desired port, the single state, into which I would fain steer; but am kept off by the foaming billows of a brother’s and sister’s envy, and by the raging winds of a supposed invaded authority; while I see in Lovelace, the rocks on the one hand, and in Solmes, the sands on the other; and tremble, lest I should split upon the former or strike upon the latter. But you, my better pilot,…—Richardson. Such phases of it as we did succeed in mentally kodaking are hardly to be ‘developed’ in cold print.—Times.
We are not photographers enough to hazard a comment on cold print.
The leading planks of the Opposition policy are declared to be the proper audit of public accounts,…—Times.