Why do people deliberately create gross metaphors?

Metaphors are excellent ways to make abstract ideas more concrete by providing a visual image of what you are trying to convey. But I am a little puzzled by people who use this device to bring up mental images that are so utterly distasteful that one does not want to even contemplate the image, which seems to defeat the purpose of using metaphors.

Take this post that took Felix Salmon to task for giving prospective journalists bad advice by discouraging them from pursuing careers in that field. These are some of the things the writer said:

All of mankind got together Monday morning and agreed to urinate in the cereal of Felix Salmon, who, in turn, decided to douse the dreams of aspiring journalists with gasoline and toss a match in their general direction.

Felix Salmon, of course, didn’t find piss in his Fruit Loops two days ago.

I have noticed that there are quite a few scatological metaphors in blogs and I am somewhat at a loss to understand the reasons for it. These metaphors are attention grabbers no doubt, but then one immediately wants to forget them because the images they create in one’s mind are disgusting. I am very likely to stop reading such an article immediately.

Maybe I’m just too old-fashioned and nowadays people don’t find those mental images as unpleasant as I do.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    “Who pissed in your corn flakes?” is a time-honoured way of asking someone why they are such a bad mood.

  2. Brony, Social Justice Cenobite says

    Language is filled with metaphors that use our bodies in many ways. I think that the reason that gross metaphors are used has to do with how humor works (the parts that are less subjective) and the purpose of the specific metaphor.

    I’ve recently been reading a lot about the purpose of humor for reasons of being more effective in arguments (It lets me understand things about the purpose of an opponents humor). This is a paper that I like though I’m still getting used to the details of the field so I can’t say how meaningful the results are yet.
    Emotional structure of jokes: a corpus-based investigation.
    This paper discusses how humor is meant to transform emotions. That transformation can be from one emotion to another, a reduction in the intensity of an emotion, an increase in the intensity and combinations. The humor the papers looks at is meant to transform fear, hatred and disgust. Interestingly most disgust based humor tends to make the disgust worse.

    If I had to speculate I would say that an instinctual purpose of making disgust humor worse is to encourage remembering of what should be considered disgusting. Since humor takes place in a safe setting there is no real thing to be disgusted by, it’s like mild aggression for play. The metaphor is meant to convey something that can’t be simply stated and using it lets a person express their emotions. So the whole thing ends up triggering humor, lets emotions get expressed, and if the person is expressing emotions does not like the object of expression they may also enjoy it being connected to the disgust.

  3. Heidi Nemeth says

    Mental images?! As a mother of four and now grandmother of five, dealing with poop can be and now is an every day reality for me. The toddler-aged brother of Audrey’s newborn had the flu this last week. You could say I was up to my elbows in poop. While changing those diapers, I have often reflected that polite society doesn’t look favorably on discussions of excrement. Yet that is a way of isolating caretakers of young children, farm workers, hospital workers, sanitation workers, plumbers and others for whom excrement is everyday work. Lucky are the people who don’t have to deal with it.

    For that matter, Mano, I have often thought that I don’t want to own a dog because I could not stand, wait, and pick up my dog’s excrement. Gross. I admire the patience of those who do.

    Young children, around the age of four, develop their sense of humor with poop jokes. References to excrement on the internet may show the person doesn’t belong to “polite (American) society” -- or is still perfecting juvenile humor.

  4. lorn says

    Ugly metaphors tending to trigger revulsion and disgust, emotional reactions that made them more memorable.

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