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Metaphors Can Cause Headaches

Joseph R. Biden, Jr.

Joseph R. Biden, Jr.

I read this morning that Barack Obama had named Senator Joseph Biden as his running mate, and that Senator Obama had done so either before or after (I don’t remember which) “unleashing a fusillade of vitriol” about his opponent, John McCain.

Writers and speakers of the English language—especially journalists—slip into metaphor-ese automatically, disregarding the literal meanings of the metaphors and throwing various symbols together any which way. That’s forgivable, usually. A language is built mostly on metaphors whose original definitions stopped mattering long ago.

Unleashing a fusillade of vitriol, however, is just plain nonsense. Fusillade and vitriol are startling words that call attention to themselves, and since the writer was bold and foolish enough to combine them in this way, I feel justified in picking that combination apart.

What we have here is three words, actually, used metaphorically with feckless indifference to the metaphor’s integrity:

  • unleashing, which means “letting go of”; but to be “unleashed,” a thing must first have been “leashed,” or restrained. It’s common, and appropriate, to speak of “unleashing one’s anger,” which has presumably been pent up. Unleashing a fusillade doesn’t make much sense, really, because it’s hard to picture a fusillade as having its own impetuous energy.
  • fusillade, which is a rapid discharge of gunfire. It isn’t the bullets themselves, or the guns, or the people firing them.
  • vitriol—sulfuric acid, a highly corrosive chemical, often used as a metaphor for “abusive language” or “invective.”

We native speakers of English know what the writer means, which is that Barack Obama harshly criticized John McCain. But someone who is just beginning to understand the English language might easily be flummoxed. She sees unleashing, and pictures a dog straining at and perhaps breaking his tether. She sees fusillade and thinks, perhaps, of the action of a firing squad. Then she reads vitriol, which she knows to be a particularly nastily corrosive liquid that she has read about in detective or crime stories, where it is thrown in the face of an enemy, usually for vengeance or retribution.

Add it up and you have, what, impatiently frisky rapid-fire emissions from squirt guns? I don’t know. I can’t think about it any more. It gives me a headache.

Paradigm for Passion

Warning: This Is Not an Historic Blog Post

If you love words, or if you just like to feel smug and superior because you use them properly, mosey on over to the Lake Superior State University List of Banished Words website.

“The tongue-in-cheek Banishment List began as a publicity ploy for little-known LSSU” in 1976, according to the site’s History of Word Banishment. You can view the list year by year, along with the rationale for banishment, or you can see the entire list, words only. A link next to each word takes you to the relevant annual list.

An advantage of looking at the entire list is that it’s easy to see the repeaters, including viable alternative, very unique, world-class, and proactive. A few words and phrases appeared three times—live audience and ongoing among them.

I was glad to see robust and revisit (1996) on the list but disappointed that passion was absent.

What’s wrong with robust?

List contributor Rob Robinson “pulled nine references to ‘robust processes,’ ‘robust materials,’ and ‘robust packaging,’ from the first 13 pages of the Ford Automotive Operations MS-9000 requirements.”

Traditionally, robust has referred to physical characteristics: energy, durability, and health. I don’t have a problem with more intangible forms of robustness, used sparingly. I can live with the occasional “robust advertising campaign,” which is what my boss required of me when I was marketing director of a short-lived* dot-com. But the dear man absolutely reveled in robustness. If someone said something moderately intelligent in a staff meeting, he seized upon the statement as a “robust idea.”

Robust quickly gained buzzword status, meaning that verbally challenged business types used it at every opportunity to indicate that they were hip to corporate trends… or something. Revisit suffered the same fate, brought into frequent service as a synonym for “revise.” Passionate probably took the worst beating. Once upon a time we were passionate about our sweethearts; then we became passionate about, say, the arts. Most recently our employers have required us to be passionate about our jobs as file clerks.

Here are a few of my favorite entries from LSSU’s list, along with the submitters’ comments:

Paradigm

Author’s note: The most cogent definition I could find was “pattern or model; a collection of assumptions, concepts, practices, and values that constitutes a way of viewing reality, especially for an intellectual community that shares them; an abstract basic structure, of some tenure, in which knowledge is related within a given realm.”

This has become the educational buzzword of 1993. I would like to see “paradigm lost.” Nancy Dean, Stephenson, Michigan

As in “I want to empower a new paradigm of health care,” [a euphemism for] “I want to shut down the hospital and let the people get their own aspirin.” Bob Cudmore, The Record, Troy, New York

Youse or Yous

Author’s note: Regionalisms don’t trouble me; I treasure them, in fact.

As in, “Would youse like coffee?” …Only in the North American vocabulary. Tori Cook, MCTV News, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario

An Historic

As in “an historic moment.” Commonly used by news people (print and broadcast). It’s wrong! If this abuse is allowed to continue, the next sound you hear from me will be an hiss! Jim Wiljanen, Dewitt, Michigan

To Gift; Gifting

What happened to “giving”? Gifting is seen in catalogs everywhere. I wonder if the originator is someone who was not in this country born.  J. Gregory Winn, St. Paul, Minnesota

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* In short-lived, “lived” rhymes with “hived.”

Ah! I Am Writing

Bad writers sit down to write, and they think, “Ah, I am writing. I must use special Writing Language.” These people may communicate beautifully in conversation, but their writing is stilted and usually verbose. They write to impress rather than to communicate.

The difference between writing and conversing is that conversation isn’t a unit. When you are talking with, say, Marcella, she is usually talking too. So your conversation is interactive. You and Marcella give each other verbal and nonverbal cues that guide the conversation. You can tell if she doesn’t understand something, and you say it a different way. You can also use body language to make your point. The two of you make constant little adjustments to keep the communication flowing.

When you’re writing, however, the reader (Arturo) can choose to read or not read your writing (unless he is your English teacher). He can stop reading at any time without letting you know. Arturo bases his choice on three things:

(1) his interest in the subject,
(2) the energy in your writing (your style), and
(3) the integrity (unity) of your narrative (that is, does the piece hang together?).

Excerpted from Write Better Right Now, by Mary Campbell, designed for business writing but useful for any nonfiction genre

GOT A QUESTION? Enter it as a comment, or e-mail mary@LifeIsPoetry.net.