Sunday, May 18, 2014

Missing the Metaphor

Maturity can always be depended on. Ripeness can be trusted.
Young women are green. I spoke horticulturally.
My metaphor was drawn from fruits.

The “mature” Miss Prism to Dr. Chasuble,
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

My husband said, “Hey, what’s with that last blog post? I thought you’d killed the thing off.”

“What do you mean?” I replied. “I thought about killing it off, sure. But I haven’t yet satisfied the conditions precedent that would necessitate killing it off.”

Shortly after that brief conversation, I realized that he had interpreted my post about the death of memory (“Wasted”) as a poetic allusion to the blog’s demise. Upon further reflection, I could see how he, poetically minded guy that he is, had made that leap. The post was, after all, inspired by my failure to remember the famous first line of “The Waste Land,” which is about breeding lilacs out of a DEAD land; the post then segues to musing on the DEATH of Chekhov’s three sisters’ dream of getting to Moscow. And the post ends with the Sanskrit chant that T.S. Eliot translated as "The Peace which passeth understanding," which pretty much can only be interpreted as a reference to literal DEATH.

But I had not meant for that particular post to serve as the blog’s metaphoric send off. At least not consciously. Which is why I did not see anything contradictory about turning around and posting again a few days later.

Herein lies the power and danger of metaphor. Metaphors can serve as powerful shorthand; but because they are inherently elliptical, things can get lost in translation. Imagine, for instance, a non-native speaker trying to make sense out of the following “everyday” metaphoric expressions whose poetic underbelly people do not even think about when they use them because they have become so naturalized in certain quarters:

• “He’s still wet behind the ears.”
• “She lives in East Jesus.”
• “That just takes the cake.”
• “They really hit a home run.”
• “Surprisingly, that partner has a heart of gold.”
• “Thank you so very much for saving my ass.”

See George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By for more on this fascinating topic.

Communicating through more original poetic allusions with certain native speakers can also be challenging—especially when one’s audience is comprised of lawyers. Lawyers are not a breed universally recognized for their comfort with metaphors because metaphors involve ellipses, a gap that has to be bridged through inferential thinking. To “get” a metaphor a person has to jump adroitly between levels of understanding—from the concrete to the more abstract—in a single instant. As with jokes, if the person delivering the message has to connect all the dots before the person on the receiving in can “get it,” the fundamental point—the ability to convey a complex observation efficiently—becomes pointless.

I think (some) lawyers struggle with metaphoric language because literal ellipses tend to rouse their suspicion, and with good reason. What is left unsaid can be a deal-breaker, especially when ellipses are used when quoting a statute or judicial opinion or contract provision. And because most lawyers are habituated to expect that legal discourse is better when not infused with ellipses or any other poetic device, (some) lawyers tend to miss metaphors when they are pitched to them as a means to try to elevate legal discourse.

For those of us who take special delight in conceiving and perceiving metaphoric tropes, it can be difficult to love those who routinely “miss the metaphor.” You could even say that those who live to toss out clever metaphors and those before whom such metaphors tend to fall with a dull thud are fundamentally incompatible because they really do look at the world through different lens. Metaphorically (or literally??), these two kinds of folks do not speak the same language.

Shakespeare captures this phenomenon rather delightfully in Twelfth Night. Although Sir Toby does his best to assist his drinking buddy, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, in wooing the saucy chambermaid, Maria, Sir Andrew cannot possibly succeed with someone like Maria who prizes wit above all. It does not matter that Sir Andrew is a man of fortune, and Maria is a mere servant who should, pragmatically speaking, jump at the prospect of capturing the fancy of a land-rich bachelor. But Maria only has eyes for the debauched, old, bankrupt reprobate, Sir Toby—because he is a man who, even well into his cups, can keep up with her metaphoric quips:

Sir Toby Belch! how now, Sir Toby Belch!

Sweet Sir Andrew!

Bless you, fair shrew.

And you too, sir.

SIR TOBY BELCH (aside to Aguecheek)
Accost, Sir Andrew, accost.

What's that?

My niece's chambermaid.

Good Mistress Accost, I desire better acquaintance.

My name is Mary, sir.

Good Mistress Mary Accost,—

SIR TOBY BELCH (aside to Aguecheek)
You mistake, knight; 'accost' is front her, board her, woo her, assail her.

By my troth, I would not undertake her in this company. Is that the meaning of 'accost'?

Fare you well, gentlemen.

And you part so, mistress, I would I might never draw sword again. Fair lady, do you think you have fools in hand?

Sir, I have not you by the hand.

Marry, but you shall have; and here's my hand.

Now, sir, 'thought is free:' I pray you, bring your hand to the buttery-bar and let it drink.

Wherefore, sweet-heart? what's your metaphor?

It's dry, sir.

Why, I think so: I am not such an ass but I can keep my hand dry. But what's your jest?

A dry jest, sir.

Are you full of them?

Ay, sir, I have them at my fingers' ends: marry, now I let go your hand, I am barren.

[Act I, scene 3]

And so the girl gets away. . . . But to his credit, Sir Andrew is not so obtuse that he fails to see the nature of the barrier between him and Maria. He even has a theory about why he keeps missing her metaphors: “Methinks sometimes I have no more wit than a Christian or an ordinary man has: but I am a great eater of beef and I believe that does harm to my wit.”

Maybe some lawyers too could afford to ease up on the beef.

Just sayin’.


  1. Sir Toby and Maria. Ahh, it gives one such hope. Metaphorically speaking.

    Great fun once again, young lady! And congrats on the gig!

  2. Thanks, Mr. Blast-from-the-Past. I have to remind you, alas, that that "young lady" is long gone. But the old lady is touched that you have taken time to read her musings.