Metaphors on The Apprentice

The good people at the Macmillan Dictionary Blog, makers of Metaphorical English Month, sends news of this BBC piece featuring some of the best metaphors contestants on The Apprentice have used to advertise their business acumen and selling skills. Last year, Stuart Baggs described himself not as “a one-trick pony, I’m not a 10-trick pony. I’ve got a field of ponies waiting to literally run towards this job.” This embellishment of a metaphorical cliche is brilliant in and of itself, but its luster is enhanced by the metaphorical use of the word ‘literally’, which is increasingly deployed to emphasize that what is being said is absolutely not meant literally at all, resulting in a kind of metaphorical double negative, which I suppose makes this linguistic use alright.  Here are some other classic metaphors from the BBC piece:

Business is the new rock ‘n’ roll and I’m Elvis Presley. —Philip Taylor

Don’t tell me the sky is the limit when there’s footsteps on the moon. —Melody Hossani

My first word wasn’t mummy, it was money. —Shibby Robati

For related metaphorical shenanigans, check out this piece from Forbes on the greatest advertising taglines of all time…

Aphorisms by Michael J. Carter

Michael J. Carter sends a handful of aphorisms in the grand tradition of the moralists, aphorists who use the form primarily as a tool for moral instruction. This is, in fact, one of the oldest forms the aphorism takes, dating back to the earliest recorded examples of written literature, from the ancient Egyptians and Chinese. Carter also taps into an ancient metaphor in the second aphorism below: ‘money is a flowing liquid’…

Compassion is the acceptable way of showing someone you are better off than they.

Money flows from the ugly to the beautiful.

Two kinds of leaders: those who look behind and those who look ahead. Beware those who look ahead.

One’s dislikes are strongest for those closest and farthest.

Aphorisms by Isaac David Garuda

A reader in Madrid sends news of Casitodo El Mundo Esta Chiflado: El Ingenio y Saber de Isaac David Garuda Un Pequeño, Libro Rojo Para No-Maoistas (a.k.a. Most People Are Nuts: The Wit & Wisdom of Isaac David Garuda, A Little Red Book For Non-Maoists), a small English-Spanish book of aphorisms published by Hapi Books in Manzanares El Real, Spain. October, 2010. Isaac David Garuda is new to me. Here are some of the non-Maoisms from his little red book:

A philosopher is a lover of wisdom. A sage is a philosopher who lives the wisdom that he/she loves.

The great paradox of human existence is this: On the one hand, we are 100% accountable for everything that happens, and on the other, we have no control over anything.

Religion is for people who are afraid to burn in hell. Spirituality is for people who’ve already been there, done that.

Life is like a joke. You don’t understand a joke; you either get it or you don’t.

David Brooks on Metaphor

David Brooks penned an interesting piece on metaphor in yesterday’s New York Times, Poetry for Everyday Life: “Being aware of metaphors reminds you of the central role that poetic skills play in our thought. If much of our thinking is shaped and driven by metaphor, then the skilled thinker will be able to recognize patterns, blend patterns, apprehend the relationships and pursue unexpected likenesses. Even the hardest of the sciences depend on a foundation of metaphors. To be aware of metaphors is to be humbled by the complexity of the world, to realize that deep in the undercurrents of thought there are thousands of lenses popping up between us and the world, and that we’re surrounded at all times by what Steven Pinker of Harvard once called ‘pedestrian poetry’.”

Aphorisms in Hotel Amerika

Hotel Amerika CoverIn magazine journalism, writing a cover story is a big deal. Your first cover story is one of the milestones in your career. These stories can be several thousand words long and take weeks, if not months, to report and write. The actual covers themselves are the kinds of things you frame and hang on your office wall. So I was honored and delighted to see that I have a cover story in the current issue of Hotel Amerika, an issue entirely devoted to aphorisms. Unlike my previous cover stories, this one consists of just six words and took me about one second to write (or about 40 years, depending on if you count all the background research I had been unwittingly doing simply by being alive). That story, in full:

When in doubt, remain in doubt.

If you’re interested in aphorisms, this issue is a must-have. It’s not online, so contact Hotel Amerika and order a copy. It is a brilliant compendium of contemporary aphorisms and aphorists. Regular readers of this blog will encounter many familiar aphorists, but there are just as many that will be new. Editor David Lazar has assembled a lively collection of aphorisms that chronicles and celebrates the diversity and vitality of the form. Below is just a brief sampling of some of the treasures. Get your own copy and enjoy!

A series of aphorisms, however well executed, is torture to get through, with the possible exception of books where one aphorism only is printed on each page. Then the field of white space relaxes the eye, and in the luxury of the pause, one realizes how deeply one wants to throw the book across the room.  — Sara Levine

You might get away with murder, but you can never get away with life. — Holly Woodward

Hatred, like love, thrives on silly details. — James Richardson

I am an excerpt from my own life. —Denis Saleh

Comedy, like religious ritual, needs an assembly of like-minded people. —Manfred Weidhor

Faith is a room with more exits than entrances. —George Murray

My watch band broke leaving my arm exposed to eternity. —Daniel Liebert

Leading horses to water is management;

Making them drink is leadership. —Rick Rauch

How hard is it to concentrate? Any garden hose can do it. —Anne Lauinger

Language was created not to break our silence, but as an alternative to screaming. —Matthew Westbrook

Better to do nothing
Than waste time.
—Eric Nelson

The people that we are tired of we usually sleep with. —Richard Krause

At Flatford Mill: Real Life as Metaphor

Yesterday I was at Flatford Mill, the site of John Constable’s family business and the setting for some of his most famous paintings. Constable, like Van Gogh, is one of those painters whose work is so famous that it is difficult to actually ‘see’ it anymore. With Van Gogh, usually you ‘see’ the paintings once, the first time, and then you just see the t-shirts, coffee cups, and place mats after that.  I never ‘saw’ Constable at all, though. His paintings are so famous, and so ubiquitous on tea towels, coasters, and jigsaw puzzles, that I never even looked once, much less actually ‘saw.’ But with my daughter’s class at Flatford Mill, I looked at Constable for the first time—or at least, at the color reproductions we carried with us as we walked around the lush, green countryside visiting the places that he painted—and was amazed at what I saw: vivid, vivacious scenes of everyday life, painted with incredible intensity and love for the people and places depicted. I finally understood why Constable is so famous.

So yesterday morning, I was sitting in front of Constable’s father’s mill, on a bench that afforded me a view of Willy Lott’s house identical to the one that Constable painted in The Hay Wain, when a FedEx van drove up and parked right in front of my nose, blocking my view of Willy Lott’s house and the little mill pond and replacing it with the passenger door of the FedEx van, which had the slogan

The world on time

painted on the side of it. I was annoyed at the driver’s thoughtlessness—disrespect even—until I realized what a perfect example this was of metaphor imitating life, or life imitating metaphor, I’m not sure which. The FedEx van and its slogan are the perfect metaphor for the way the constant pressure of work and worry and deadlines obstructs my appreciation of the commonplace beauty of daily life—of looking at, really looking at paintings; of walking in the countryside on a gorgeous sunny day with my daughter; of sitting on a bench and simply doing nothing.

FedEx delivers the world on time, and for that I am truly grateful. But it also gets in the way of another world, a world that is just as important and, in fact, far more permanent than the one FedEx delivers. Constable painted a world so intensely present and so detailed that it is both a world completely in and of its time and a timeless world, too. The world that’s happening in The Hay Wain happens forever, and the fact that it happened at all is because John Constable stopped the other things he was doing and ‘saw’ it.

The FedEx driver picked up or dropped off whatever package he needed to pick up or drop off, and then he drove away, restoring to me my unobstructed view of Willy Lott’s house and another world—just in time, too.

Metaphor, I.B.M.’s Watson, and Jeopardy

It’s funny how the things that turn out to be important are somehow never the things you thought would turn out to be important, like the importance of a Jeopardy-playing computer program to what it means to be ‘human’. Tomorrow, the face off between I.B.M.’s Watson computer and the two best human Jeopardy players will be broadcast—and Watson is expected to win. This is technologically a big deal, as explained brilliantly in this Mashable article,  because of the awesome computing power needed to get computers to parse the puns and allusions characteristic of Jeopardy answers. It’s humanistically a big deal because, until tomorrow (maybe), playing Jeopardy was one of those things that only humans were thought to do well. Before Watson, only homonids were thought to be any good with homonyms.

What does this have to do with metaphor? Well, the kinds of things Watson and his human opponents will be parsing tomorrow are the same kinds of things that go into metaphors: loose associations, punning relationships, sidelong and sidereal correlations. Until now, computers have not been very good at making these kinds of intuitive connections, as the wealth of useless information thrown up by the simplest Google search demonstrates. If Watson can do it, though, that is one giant leap for computerkind…

There has been research, usually involving the painstaking compilation of crucial keywords, designed to teach computers to understand metaphors. Watson may well turn out to be the first proof of concept. And there is no reason, theoretically at least, why computers shouldn’t understand metaphors. The one crucial ingredient is context.

You don’t have to look to computers for examples of poor metaphor comprehension. Children are pretty poor at comprehending complex metaphors, too, at least until they reach adolescence. As children’s knowledge of the world grows, though, so does their metaphorical range. The same is true for adults. Any metaphor is comprehensible only to the extent that the domains from which it is drawn are familiar. If you have the context, you can figure out the meaning.

The lack of essential context is what perplexed the crew of the Starship Enterprise when they encountered the Tamarians in the “Darmok” episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation. The Tamarians speak a language no one has yet been able to fully decipher. The Tamarian tongue is so elusive because it is so allusive, consisting entirely of metaphors from the alien race’s mythology and history. In Tamarian, for example, “cooperation” is expressed by the phrase “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” because Tamarian folklore includes the tale of Darmok and Jalad, two warriors who banded together to fight a common foe on the island of Tanagra. Other Tamarian metaphors include “Darmok on the ocean” for loneliness, “Shaka, when the walls fell” for failure, “The river Temarc in winter” for silence, “Sokath, his eyes open” for understanding, and “Kiteo, his eyes closed” for refusal to understand. In comprehending metaphor, context is king. There’s absolutely no reason why a computer can’t do it.

And it’s funny how books you’d almost forgotten turn out to be unexpectedly relevant, like The Body Electric, which, like this piece on Watson in the NYTimes, explores how computers could be considered living things—given the right senses and enough context.

Metaphor and Martha and the Vandellas

I heard Martha and the Vandellas in concert a couple of months ago and they really knocked my socks off. And it just so happens that one of their hits, Heat Wave, is one of the best examples of a metaphor for love, as explained in this Q&A on the Marie Claire website…

7 Strange Places to Meet a Metaphor

“It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!” is one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines and one of the most well known metaphors in literature. But metaphor is much more than a mere literary device employed by love-struck poets when they refer to their girlfriends as interstellar masses of incandescent gas. We all use metaphor all the time. They turn up in the strangest places and influence us in surprising and often oddball ways.

Financial commentary
Stock prices soar, climb, leap, and perform all kinds of other superheroic statistical feats—all metaphors implying that stock prices are living things pursuing goals. Exposure to these metaphors leads people to expect the trends they describe to continue. If house prices are relentlessly described as climbing higher and higher, homeowners unconsciously assume the steady rise is unstoppable…

Your physical environment
People holding a hot cup of coffee are more likely to describe someone as ‘warm’ than people holding a cold cup of coffee. People sitting on a hard chair are more likely to be ‘tough’ negotiators than people sitting on a soft chair. People who seal their written recollections of a traumatic event in an envelope achieve greater emotional closure than those who do not seal their memories in an envelope. Metaphors transfer physical experience to psychological experience.

Product design
We evolved to rapidly recognize and respond positively to anything with large, wide eyes and a small nose and mouth—anything that looks like a baby. This instinctive positive emotional response can be transferred via visual metaphor to anything that looks like a face, even a car grill. People rate cars as cuter and more desirable if their front grills have been manipulated to look baby-like.

Military names
An analysis of the names given to Israeli military operations between 1948 and 2007 found that more than 60% of them alluded to either the natural world or the Bible, metaphorical names intended to suggest that the campaigns were either forces of nature or sanctioned by a higher power. Operation Enduring Freedom anyone?

One ad has stuck in my mind since I first saw it in the 1970s: Prudential’s “Get a piece of the rock.” The image of Gibraltar is a powerful metaphor of safety, control, and security. An insurance company is not just an insurance company, but a rock of stability in turbulent times.

Physical experience
Anger is metaphorically described as heat in every culture. “She’s about to blow her top,” “He’s all steamed up,” “She’s a hot head,” and “In the heat of the moment” are all variations on the ‘anger is heat’ metaphor. In fact, the experience of physical heat is processed in the same brain region as emotional heat. Many metaphors piggyback on the language of physical experience.

Historical metaphors
In his State of the Union address, President Obama described the challenge of creating new industries and new jobs as “our generation’s Sputnik moment,” referring to 1957 when the Soviet Union put the first satellite into space. Historical metaphors create associations that influence our decisions, often without our conscious knowledge. So it’s important to carefully choose your metaphors, and to be vigilant about those used by others. There’s a big difference between making a giant leap for mankind and re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

For more on metaphor, check out I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World.