The Elephant in the Text: Death of a Metaphor

*for the tl;dr brigade. Yeah I’m geeking out.. Try this, it has lots of pictures


I did it again. Well almost. I thought only fanbois on IMDB could rouse me to a drive- by punning until I found myself privy to a conversation with a man who said this :

my heart froze is not a metaphor”.

He didn’t just say it. He defended it. To its death. Which was rather pointless; it was already dead.

I’ve never considered myself a flowery kind of writer; certain words and phrases rot my teeth. Like candy floss dipped in caramel and dusted in sherbet. When I first read Elmore Leonard’s (that man I constantly tell you not to listen to) list of rules, I reached number three, ‘never use an adverb to modify the verb said – he admonished gravely’, and I thought, thank god it’s not just me. At the time it was one writer connecting with another. I had no idea how literally people were going to interpret that word, ‘rule’. I had no idea how literally people were interpreting every word they read. It simply never occurred to me that one man’s dislike of ‘she tittered coyly’ could lead to an industry wide act of homogenisation. I have always cringed at any reference that involves the phrase, ‘its just like in Orwell’s 1984’ but if anything in this world comes close, this might be it.

Was it the internet? Perhaps it was already here. One of the things that has made my reading list shorter by the year was the lack of variety. None of it however showed a lack of ‘she tittered coyly’. Dan Brown and his peers continue to publish unaffected. So perhaps I worry needlessly. Or perhaps it’s a matter of interpretation.

Minimalist writing in the tradition of Hemingway has been taught for so many decades that much of what is published these days lacks character and colour. ~ Dean Koontz

There’s not a dearth of adverbs; Rowling and Meyer can keep us supplied for centuries. Yet I do agree with the latter and I do see worrying trends in the unpublished ranks, which I guess are where the superstars of tomorrow are lurking.

If people – writers – don’t understand why I and – going way out on a limb here – Leonard had a problem with ‘she tittered coyly’, if they continue to cite phrases like power verbs and ‘redundancy’ (which I believe Shakespeare called writing..) does that explain my disquiet when I look at their books? And there is absolutely nothing wrong with their books. They’re perfectly, nicely, neatly, correctly written. There’s also nothing wonderful, memorable, distinctive, engrossing about their books. Shouldn’t all books show a little something wonderful?

Many writers write from passion and are happy to tell everyone how much they don’t know. They know more that they think – far more – for most writers understand more than they think they know on a conscious level. It may be mimicry of a sort, absorbed through their passion and limited by genre. That’s okay, there’s no need to be a jack of all writing. I just worry what happens when the adverb police get a hold of their work.

Knowing isn’t the problem you see. Understanding is. Being able to cite rules learned verbatim and spout terminology qualifies you for a research job on Countdown. It doesn’t make you a writer. Our job is to understand the effect of the words when placed in any given configuration.

Returning to my literal friend, the frozen hearted one. My heart froze is a cliché, also often referred to as a dead metaphor. The official definition is ‘a figure of speech that has lost its force and imaginative effectiveness through frequent use’.

I could not agree less. Or disagree more. It may have lost its power to shock, but it is only when it has made this transition into the deeper levels of language that it really starts to affect us.

It is here that they can truly begin to change the way we look at the world and stretch our concept of reality.

Take for example two types of metaphor considered to be very much alive and kicking: The simile – the most basic, simplest of metaphorical forms. So simple in fact that many won’t even acknowledge that it is a metaphor. This in and of itself shows a troubling adherence to the terminology and lack of innate understanding of the form. ie A literal translation. I won’t go too much more into what could be an endless argument, but if you feel a need to, then you might need to hear what comes next more than most 😀

Simile is considered by most writers to be clunky. And notably even readers notice them. To quote a fellow blogger…

Is there any such thing as a good simile?’

I know others – simple readers not writers – who claim they have never read a simile they didn’t hate. I’d counter they’ve read plenty and didn’t even know it. Because live as a simile may be when conceived many – any with a modicum of resonance – have passed into cliché. And so their second life begins.

Is a picture pretty? Is a brush daft? Is a lark happy? Is a daisy fresh?

So for powerful writing write in clichés? Well it would certainly be one explanation for why certain – so called – atrocious writers have been so successful. But I won’t go for that instead I’ll simply say make clichés your friend. Dead similes can assume, as can any dead metaphor, another form. They bear a startling resemblance to another type – my favourite – the implied metaphor. The implied metaphor lets the weight of the word do the work without having to explicitly state anything. It uses the power given to it – the meaning ground in through years of use as it sank into our consciousness accumulating layers of connotations that even the dictionary can’t sort through. Because it’s not defined by words but clouded and crowded with feelings and images and understanding that words can’t hope to parse out. All they can do is trigger. At this level all words are metaphors.

To return to, ‘My heart froze’. We know this. We understand this. Many would have you believe we know it so well we don’t register it. But as the argument that began it all shows, we notice.


We’re writers, we notice clichés! Perhaps, but we were a mixed bunch. No, I think we noticed because we knew it didn’t belong. That emotion didn’t belong to that character in that situation. We didn’t need to stop and ponder, we knew.

Take the dreaded speech tag that isn’t said, ‘tittered’. Once it was likely rendered, ‘she tittered like an excited little bird’. Now it has become so common we need only tittered, and if used right, even I probably wouldn’t mind it. Language is often a reflection of what lies below.

Or perhaps ‘growled.’ His fury made his voice deep and rough rendering him like a growling bear.

It’s an evolving, a condensing; large concepts concertina-ed down into one word unfolding back out in the readers mind.

In order to use language you must first understand what you use.

metaphor, simile all kinds of figures of speech have evaporated from modern fiction and many new writers have no interest in using language in vivid and inventive ways’. ~ Dean Koontz

Whatever they are taught, whatever they are trying to do, the metaphors are still there, the metonymy inherent in language refuses to allow anything else. The only question is, do they have any idea what they are actually saying?



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