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  • David Mathews

Don't Mix with Metaphors


‘It won’t do, dear boy. You can’t write “a mountain of a project took off”. It won’t do.’

I had asked Arthur to look over an essay I am writing. A mixed metaphor is his bête noire. It was my only slip, thank goodness, so his chiding was moderate.

We chewed the fat over figurative speech until we paused to eavesdrop on Mr Johnson’s come-back sermon outside Number 10 – Covid-19 was a mugger, and he was wrestling it to the ground, and so forth. I felt a lightweight in the rhetorical business.

Fond of a metaphor, the PM, I suggested.

‘Oh, it’s more than fond,’ said Arthur.

As a psychiatrist, my chum Sir Arthur had encountered dozens of patients who spoke only in metaphors about their lives and troubles. They seemed to be incapable of – and I paraphrase Arthur’s terminology – calling a spade a spade. But until Mr Johnson’s rise to power, Arthur had come across only one person with the severest pathology, YAMSS (You Are My Sunshine Syndrome).

‘It’s not the habit of using metaphors, good or bad. It’s thinking in metaphor that’s the problem. In some lights it’s a comorbidity of narcissism and paranoia, in others it’s a complete denial of reality. You see, the YAMSS sufferer casts himself (and it is generally a him) in a heroic role within the metaphor. Any problem is framed as a physical obstacle to be overcome or a dangerous opponent to be beaten down. It’s not only Don Quixote’s windmills that become giants; anything tricky does. The YAMSS sufferer’s metaphoric responses are correspondingly energetic and violent, with reference to battles, killing and capturing. It’s life as a war movie or an ancient Greek epic poem.’

Harmful, I wondered?

‘Can be. Thinking deeply about detail is badly inhibited. Facts and truth are insufficiently elastic, and are sacrificed to the flashy image. Think sombrero. YAMSS sufferers struggle badly when no metaphor is ready at hand. All at sea, you might say.’

Such as when?

‘Take trends and predictions. Graphs are OK, with topographic allusions borrowed from mathematicians. Peak and plateau, for example. But your Oxford classics man has no metaphors for uncertainty, statistical significance, inference and confidence limits, the real grit of science. Hence the resort to that dodgy generality, “following the science”. I’m surprised, actually, that Johnson did not come up with something like the “Sherpa of science” or the “bloodhound of test and trace”. Anyway, my point is that technical exactness will always be a problem for a Yammer.’

A Yammer?

Arthur apologised. ‘Black humour, old boy. But you do realise that the man is in shock? Johnson, I mean.’

Well obviously, what with being in ICU and the baby.

‘More the baby, to be frank. He wasn’t expecting it.’

The nipper arrived a bit early, yes, but we all knew he was on his way, surely.

‘Oh, not the birth, but the child. The shock for Johnson was that it was actually a child, a human with arms, legs and, I trust, a healthy cry. For him, Carrie’s bump could as readily have been a melon.’

Uh … Arthur?

‘Oh yes, my boy. He’s so lost in metaphor that he cannot grasp reality even as passingly as you and I do. For Johnson, sex is not meant to result in a little person who needs care and love and some constancy. Far too down and dirty for a buccaneering metaphorist. No, when his sperm go a-wandering, the outcome in his mind is far vaguer than “baby”. It’s almost ethereal. You want my guess on the phrase he would reach for? “The fruit of my loins”. You wait. He’ll use it before long.’

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