Avoiding failed metaphors and missed similes

I was going to call this "when metaphors attack" but the reality is that I'm the one attacking the metaphors, and shaking them like a terrier until they fall apart.

I have already mentioned in other posts how there is a lot more metaphor in people's language than they realize. That the babble of a babbling brook is a metaphor, and the play of a play of light. But it is fairly rare that these clichés fail - we are so used to seeing them describe what they describe, that we don't really call them into question.

Simile and metaphor work by resemblance, which can be strikingly vague, but there is a case where both can fail, and fail quite jarringly.

Consider first the use of a simile to describe an abstract idea:

"His job fit him like a glove."

In this case, we mean that his job is perfectly suited to him, or he to it. Being suited to your job is abstract. "Fit like a glove" provides us with an image of suitability - the glove is the precise shape it needs to be to fit a hand. So we take an image of physical suitability, and use it as a symbol for abstract suitability.

Consider next:

"His car fit him like a glove."

At first, this might not strike you as strange; it is still all about suitability; the author is using the simile to show that the car suits its owner in every possible way. It's meaning is therefore still abstract. But I'll come back to this example.

"The hilt fit his hand like a glove."

This ought to be immediately jarring. But I see examples of this often enough that I suppose there must be some common reasoning behind it, and I suspect that reasoning has to do with the way that we can use simile to describe abstracts, which therefore bear no physical or visual resemblance to the image chosen, because an abstract has no physical or visual characteristics. The author still wants to describe a perfect fit, but has chosen to compare one concrete image — the hand gripping the hilt — with another — the glove fitting the hand — and these two fits are NOT analogous. The glove fits the hand because it is hand shaped. The hilt fits into the hand because it has been designed to be gripped by a hand using it for a specific purpose. Conceptually, both are about fitness for purpose, but the image of a grip and a glove-fit are not similar.

In effect, it is easier to choose a simile for an abstract idea, because it isn't confused by the possibility of provoking dissonant imagery.

Going back, therefore, to the car fitting like a glove. This is an example of the most common problem that I find with figurative language, and it is a form of indiscipline that arises from a lack of awareness both of the way in which figurative language functions and the way that the writer should be consciously choosing his imagery.

The car fits both in the abstract sense - that is perfectly suited to its owner - but also in a concrete sense, in that the owner fits inside the car. But like the hand/hilt relationship, the car/driver relationship is not the same as a glove/hand relationship. The exterior of the car is not driver shaped. The author who has selected this image has got the abstract part right but failed to notice that the simile fails as a physical comparison.

I selected "like a glove" for this post because it is so heavily used that most readers will not notice if it doesn't fit the intended description, ahem, like a glove. Cliché makes simile and metaphor rather more adaptable. But if (as I hope you do) you prefer to make up your own similes, then you don't have the cosy flexibility of the cliché to protect you.

* * *

I'm not sure that this post is completely clear. I'll probably have to revisit this idea at some point.

No comments: