Sunday, August 13, 2006
A story in the Observer - here - contains 13 metaphors if the headline is included. The second paragraph with 'impact', 'slump', 'surge', 'knock-on' and 'dampening' is particularly fine. Probably the writer did not think these cliche useages were metaphors, but they are. The article is about the effects of the terrorist plot on business and its conclusion is that they will be minimal. The writer notes, for example, that the FT Index 'reacted resiliently' by being unchanged. But the primary metaphor is in the first four words - 'Britain will shrug off....' Of course, there's nothing wrong with using metaphors as long as they are under control. 'Shrug off' is definitely out of control. Britain will do no such thing and, indeed, should not do any such thing. But implying that Britain will and should is obviously dangerous. The worst case of an uncontrolled metaphor was Richard Dawkins' 'selfish gene'. No gene can be selfish nor can even appear to be acting selfishly, the word is quite meaningless. (For a full analysis of the damage done by this metaphor and its entirely unscientific basis, read Denis Noble's superb book The Music of Life: Biology Beyond the Genome.) Yet people drew political and social conclusions - which, in fairness, Dawkins did not - from this rather dodgy metaphor. The same thing is happening now with terrorism. Metaphors are falling like snow from a heavy sky. The danger is that people don't know what they are and mistake them for the simple truth.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 10:42 am