Would you like to hop aboard my train of thought? Or dive into my stream of consciousness? Diving into my train of thought might not be quite so pleasant, however. That might hurt.
Metaphors pop up all the time. Whether you use them consciously or unconsciously, they add colour to your ideas. They turn your words into a picture that your audience can visualise.
Last week I was reading Time Out with the radio on in the background. The song A Team by Ed Sheeran came on and I caught some of the lyrics as they floated by my ears: “Cos she’s just under the upper hand . . .” What a great way to subvert a clichéd metaphor. It’s almost as good as The Who’s “I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth”.
Although Ed Sheeran and The Who both play with their metaphors, they still stick to one each – one thread that runs throughout. But what about when metaphors get mixed up? ‘The economy is a tidal wave in meltdown that could deflate until it shatters.’ Your picture is now in pieces. And not in a clever, Picasso way.
It’s a short step to the funny-on-purpose mixed metaphor: “Unfortunately for yours truly, that train had sailed” (Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery). Or “looks like the cows have come home to roost” (The Naked Gun 2 ½)
But more often there’s no laughter, just a feeling of slight queasiness: “There are pockets of our society that are not just broken but, frankly, sick.” OK, a pocket can break – maybe you put something too heavy in it. But pockets can’t get sick. Holey, or full of sweets, yes. But sick? No. Maybe David Cameron meant the frightfully modern meaning of sick – cool, insane, awesome. But still, what’s an awesome pocket?
When metaphors are consistent, they can get powerful. Witness Martin Luther King’s commanding extended metaphor for the American civil rights movement:
“America has given the Negro people a bad cheque which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”
That’s the sort of stuff that’d get you going in the morning.
And talking of getting going, we have reached the end of the line. I hope you have enjoyed your journey on my train of thought. Please mind the gap when stepping onto the platform.