Marvelous Mixed Metaphors (But No Alliterations)

Updated on June 27, 2019
Rupert Taylor profile image

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


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.

Sports Metaphors

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.”


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 | Source

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.”

Mitch Benn - Mixed Metaphors - The Now Show

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 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 run-away 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 | Source

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.’ ”

Stephen Colbert Roasts Bush at 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner

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 top prize for 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.

© 2016 Rupert Taylor


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • Indelible whisper profile image

      Imran khan 

      14 months ago from Mumbai

      Wow... That's excellent! :)


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)