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Marvelous Mixed Metaphors (But No Alliterations)

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

An idiom wrapped in ... a metaphor? Is that a metaphor, too?

An idiom wrapped in ... a metaphor? Is that a metaphor, too?

Fearless Writing

There’s an old piece of advice for journalists―Don’t write about grammar or spelling because your article will contain grammatical howlers and be sprinkled with spelling errors. Fearlessly, I plunge ahead, secure in the knowledge that this is not rocket surgery.

Metaphor or Simile?

Our language is enriched by the use of metaphors, which compare two unrelated things to bring life to a statement. William Shakespeare gave us the metaphor that “All the world’s a stage,” comparing life to a dramatic presentation.

A simile is quite different as it says one thing is like another thing. If Shakespeare had wanted a simile he would have written “All the world is like a stage.”

Oh what the hey, while we’re in class, let’s toss in idioms as well. Here’s the Cambridge Dictionary: an idiom is “a group of words whose meaning considered as a unit is different from the meanings of each word considered separately.” So, “Aunt Gussie kicked the bucket” does not mean there was any kicking or that a bucket was involved; it means she died. We have to learn that the words taken together mean something else―very tricky for non-English speakers to grasp.

Here endeth the first lesson from a boring grammar Nazi. Meanwhile, back in the metaphor factory, The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes gives us plenty of metaphor examples:

“The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas . . .

“His eyes were hollows of madness . . .

“The road was a gypsy’s ribbon, looping the purple moor.”

Metaphors creep (there’s one) into our everyday speech. When one metaphor gets tangled (there’s another) up with a second one embarrassing hilarity follows.

Metaphorical Political Slips

Although rarely lost for words, many politicians must sometimes wish they had kept their mouths shut. Many voters wish for the same thing.

The Irish politician Sir Boyle Roche (1736–1807) will forever be remembered for a glorious interweaving of metaphors “Mr. Speaker, I smell a rat; I see him forming in the air and darkening the sky; but I’ll nip him in the bud.”

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The eloquent baronet was heard to talk about “living from hand to mouth like the birds of the air.”

Sir Boyle, who was also given to malapropisms, might be said to have gone down in posterior for his outrageous mangling of thoughts.

In 1948, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevan, did not like the idea of setting up a Council of Europe. Why would he? Because, as he eloquently pointed out, “When you open that Pandora’s box, you will find it full of Trojan horses.”

The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by Domenico Tiepolo

The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by Domenico Tiepolo

More recently, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore got all confused about the markings of African animals. In 1992, he said of George W. Bush, “A zebra does not change its spots.” Three years later, he told a press conference “We all know the leopard can’t change his stripes.”

In 2014, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation handed its “Mixed Metaphor of the Year award to Amanda Vanstone. The member of the Australian National Commission of Audit advised her fellow citizens to “Let’s fix our roof while the sun is shining because we’re on a course to hit the rocks and we have to fix it.”

Then, there’s Welsh Conservative Andrew Davies getting almost strangled by his verbiage “the fig-leaf they are trying to pull over people’s eyes just won’t wash.”

And, here’s U.S. Republican Senator Pat Robertson having a wild old time attacking President Obama’s health care plan: “I am terribly concerned that we are riding hell for leather into a health care box canyon full of spending quicksand, cactus tax hikes, policy briar patches, complete with (federal) regulatory scorpions, rattlesnakes, and bad news bears.”

The King of Mixed Metaphors

Comedian Stephen Colbert mastered contorted phrasing as he skewered idiocy on his nightly satirical show.

Colbert once opined that “Laughter brings the swelling down on our national psyche, and then applies an antibiotic cream.” So, herewith is a salve of Mr. Colbert’s creation.

In October 2009, he took Pat Robertson’s metaphor-laden comment to a whole new level:

“You see, folks, we’re on a runaway stagecoach of big government being chased by the coyotes of increased deficits and heading right into an ambush . . . Unless the marshal of fiscal responsibility arrives on the noon train of free-market principles to drive these saloon girls of new taxes out, the pick-up truck of high premiums will get eaten by the death-panel prairie dogs . . .”

The Runaway Coach Thomas Rowlandson

The Runaway Coach Thomas Rowlandson

In a discussion about metaphors, Colbert said “Why don’t you just say what you mean instead of dressing things up in all this flowery language like the great Romantic poets―‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’? Why don’t you say, ‘You’re hot―let’s do it’?”

Or “It was a quaint little hamburger joint surrounded by a dozen or so idling semis, their great diesel lungs belting out a deep jazz riff through the horns of their smokestacks, exhaust caps flapping rhythmically like trumpet mutes.”

And, in his famous (infamous to fans of George W. Bush) 2006 speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner Colbert mocked the press for criticizing President Bush by saying “ ‘They’re just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.’ First of all, that is a terrible metaphor. This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg.’ ”

Some Metaphorical Gems

A collection of metaphorical salads many of them constructed by that prolific writer of quotations “Anonymous.”

  • “If we can hit that bull’s-eye then the rest of the dominoes will fall like a house of cards.” Animated science fiction series Futurama
  • “I can see the carrot at the end of the tunnel.” Soccer manager Stuart Pearce
  • “Moss never grows on a fish out of water.” Anonymous
  • “This is awfully weak tea to have to hang your hat on.” Anonymous
  • “It’s just ham-fisted salami-slicing by the bean counters.” Anonymous
  • “It does not push the envelope over the edge.” Anonymous
  • “We operate close to the bone by the skin of our teeth.” Anonymous
  • “Bananas are the elephant in the room.” Anonymous

Bonus Factoid

  • Jack Warner was a vice-president of soccer’s governing body FIFA when he got (metaphor alert) caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Prior to his ouster, he delivered some fightin’ words: “Not even death will stop the avalanche that is coming. The die is cast. There can be no turning back. Let the chips fall where they fall.” This statement won the top prize for the worst mixed metaphor of 2015 awarded by the Plain English Foundation.


  • “Mixed Metaphors.” Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl, December 6, 2008.
  • “Mixed Metaphors.” The Russler, undated.
  • “ ‘Conscious Uncoupling’ Judged Worst Phrase of 2014 by Plain English Foundation.” Candice Marshall, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, April 2, 2015.
  • “Senate Passes Health Care Bill, 60-39.” Ryan Grim and Arthur Delaney, Huffington Post, March 18, 2010
  • “Humaphors: The Top 10 Metaphors of Stephen Colbert.” Richard Nordquist, About Education, undated.
  • “The Language Perfectionist: Don’t Mix Your Metaphors.” Don Hauptman, Early to Rise, undated.
  • “The Worst Words, Phrases and Spin of 2015.” Neil James, The Drum, December 28, 2015.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Rupert Taylor


Imran khan from Mumbai on May 27, 2019:

Wow... That's excellent! :)

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