Metaphors may be a writer’s best tool, primarily because they create a vivid mental picture, sometimes worth more than a thousand words. John McPhee’s description of another writer’s sharp sophistication was described this way: “His words wore spats.” Brilliant. But sometimes metaphors can be misleading and even hurtful, and that’s a huge problem in our political and business landscape.
In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, authors Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer analyzed common metaphors for the economy – how immigrants are the greatest “economic engine” the world has known, and how tax cuts “fuel” the recovery. These metaphors paint a picture of a machine that just needs to be primed and adjusted – a self-enclosed metaphor that is the gospel of market fundamentalists.
The problem: the machine metaphor creates an illusion about how economic forces work. Liu and Hanauer suggest that another framework, another metaphor, is much more accurate. The economy isn’t a machine but a garden, one that “can be fruitful if well tended, but overrun by noxious weeds, if not.” They require fertilizer, water and weeding; gardeners must adapt to seasons and turn the soil.
Politics notwithstanding, the differences between the machine and garden metaphor make a difference in how we view the world and influence people’s thinking. Metaphors matter.
Here’s another example. Are immigrants illegal “aliens” or “undocumented workers”? Again, the difference speaks volumes about our attitudes and how we might address a complicated problem.
In the business world, some people in the railroad industry call train enthusiasts “foamers,” as in foaming at the mouth when they talk about old trains. On Wall Street, a “piker” is a small fish (no explanation needed) and a “Third Avenue guy” is someone who is not smart enough to work for a company with a more upscale address. Here, metaphors reflect dangerous attitudes about customers, the life-blood (metaphor) of any business.
Clearly, metaphors are not neutral – they can devalue as much as add value. Or they can turn into useless jargon (“thinking outside the box”). So we should use them carefully or not at all. Because the more something is like other things, the less it is distinctly itself. And metaphors are never more than approximations.
But used well, they can shed light on a subject (metaphor), create useful mental images that help people grasp a complex idea (metaphor), and lift common prose (metaphor) into something closer to poetry. In writing as in life, metaphors matter.