Ugly metaphors and sayings

In writing a recent post, I typed in the phrase ‘beat a dead horse’ that had come to my mind. Then I stopped short and asked myself why I was writing that. While it captured the futility of repeatedly doing something that will produce no result, it is a really ugly metaphor. What I mean by the word ‘ugly’ is not that the metaphor is inconsistent or mixed but that the image it brings up is unpleasant or cruel. The image of a horse that is dead being flayed by someone is abhorrent. So I replaced it with ‘belabor the point’.

I started wondering about other ugly metaphors and sayings, such as ‘there are many ways to skin a cat’. Again, the image it conjures is an unpleasant one. So why do we still use them? One reason may be that they have become so stale from familiarity and overuse that our eyes just roll over them and they no long bring to mind any mental images at all. They have become dead metaphors. But in that case, they should still be jettisoned. The whole point of a metaphor is to bring some image to vivid life in order to make a point. If it no longer does that, then it becomes just filler words.

There are some sayings whose images are ugly only because their original meanings have got lost with time. One such is where one describes a place as so confined that one ‘cannot swing a cat’. This originated with ‘cat’ being a shortened form of ‘cat o’ nine tails’ which was a kind of whip used for physical punishment aboard ships in the old days. It is still an unpleasant image but at least does not bring to mind an act of needless cruelty to animals.

Trump was very fond of using dogs to describe the behavior of people he disliked, ascribing to these fine animals qualities of cowardice, servility, and other negative attributes. For example, he described Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Syrian leader of ISIS, as having “died like a dog” because he had “whimpered, cried and screamed like a coward”. The qualities that dogs are famous for, their bravery, loyalty, and unconditional love, are qualities that Trump does not have and does not value and so he ascribes to these fine animals the qualities of cowardice and petulance which are, interestingly, the very qualities that he himself has.

There are many metaphors that I find distasteful because they are scatological and the images they bring to mind are unpleasant. Take the very popular ‘when the shit hits the fan’. It is vivid, no doubt, but gross. Is it really necessary? It also does not work since such a thing is highly unlikely to happen in real life. Under what scenario could it happen that feces actually hits a fan? Wouldn’t ‘when the cake hits the fan’ work as well? It is not only more plausible as an actual scenario (one can imagine someone throwing a cake at a fan), it also has all the required elements of creating a massive mess requiring extensive cleaning operations but without the gross aspects.

I do not know why scatological metaphors are so popular. Most of the time they are not necessary because they are used in the context of describing something that is not necessarily gross. Maybe it is because the user seeks to create a sense of shock and disgust rather than elucidate. I have started to monitor my metaphor use more closely to prevent the use of ugly ones.


  1. Bruce says

    One hypothesis is that all such metaphors started as real situations. Thus, the hit-the-fan metaphor may have started as some well known situation, such as a river boat hitting a fen border or a weir or something that used similar sounding words that described actual well known situations then. Such sayings thus may be even older than the English language as now understood. Understanding such sayings may require knowledge of Old English, or of Old Germanic or Old Norse languages, habits, and customs. All of this further underscores Mano’s point that such metaphors are truly dead, especially if we can’t imagine it as a real situation. Thus, such metaphors should be removed and replaced. In what year was the most recent incident of a driver not noticing that their horse was dead, and whipping it anyway? Does anyone think the Wright Brothers bicycled to Kitty Hawk in 1905 to fly their plane, and pedaled past someone who couldn’t tell if their horse was dead? Would even George Washington have kept a slave who would kill a valuable horse accidentally, out of rage? Even racists wouldn’t waste their own horse. The whole scenario can no longer be even imagined. Time for it all to go. After all, a stitch in time saves nine, as everyone says who stitches up their own clothes.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    Whenever someone brings up dead metaphors, I feel it is time to trot out (which is a metaphor itself, I suppose) that most brilliant essay of a brilliant mind, “Politics and the English Language,” just in case there is anyone here who has not read it yet. (

    “Dying metaphors. A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically ‘dead’ (e. g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgels for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a ‘rift’, for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase.”

    That being said, I suspect the reason these sayings are still with us is that they do create a mental image, albeit a tired one, and language that provokes an image is always more striking than language that doesn’t.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    Take the very popular ‘when the shit hits the fan’. It is vivid, no doubt, but gross. Is it really necessary?

    I suspect it’s only ‘gross’ to people who don’t have to spend a significant amount of their time cleaning it up. I guess that would be most urbanized folk these days, but it wasn’t too many generations ago when most of our ancestors were up to their knees in it, so to speak. It’s waste matter. No big deal. And yes, terms like this are necessary IMO. Vivid and mildly shocking can be very effective.

    It also does not work since such a thing is highly unlikely to happen in real life.

    It works because we can imagine it, not because it happens.

    There’s a wonderful Northern British term ‘bletherskite’ (varied spellings), meaning someone who speaks volumes of nonsense. ‘Blether’ is cognate with ‘bladder’, and ‘skite’ is the Norse form of ‘shit’. What’s not to love?

  4. Holms says

    For my part, I find it funny when I discover that an adult is squeamish / disgusted by the words shit and fuck. They are perfectly reasonable words, I say why not use them? As far as I can tell, the vulgar status of those words dates back the the old French / Anglo Saxon split in the languages spoken in England, with the nobility turning their noses up at ‘peasant words’.

    Tangent aside, by what method would the metaphors be declared dead and cast out of the language? A committee?

  5. cartomancer says

    I am rather fond of humourists who take trite old metaphors and breathe new life in them with parodic twists.

    Terry Pratchett was very fond of doing this, creating medieval-themed parodies such as “when the midden hits the windmill” and “now we’re cooking with charcoal!”.

    The British impressionst series Dead Ringers also had a penchant for such usages. Once they did a parody of an advert for a new Delia Smith cookery programme, where she was making “fresh barrel shavings on a bed of lightly flogged horse” (the joke being that she’s done the same dishes so often that she’s basically repeating herself now).

  6. Aoife_b says

    An odd one I saw is ” there are more ways to kill a dog than by choking it with butter”

  7. DonDueed says

    I think I’ll switch to “when the spaghetti hits the fan”. That should get the point across.

  8. John Morales says

    At some point, such metaphorical expressions become idioms.

    (Then one sees people writing things such as “tow the line”)

  9. Rob Grigjanis says

    Holms @4:

    As far as I can tell, the vulgar status of those words dates back the the old French / Anglo Saxon split in the languages spoken in England, with the nobility turning their noses up at ‘peasant words’.

    I think the vulgar status dates from much later. The upper classes were speaking English by the time of Chaucer, who certainly used words many of us would consider vulgar. But some time around the 17th or 18th century (I think), we started introducing ‘learned’ Latin and Greek words or roots, many of which replaced English words in scholarly circles.

  10. says

    I had a manure spreader that had been assembled incorrectly. The beater was powered from a chain sprocket on the axle, so it cranked as the spreader was towed behind the tractor. Well, either deliberately or by accident, the larger sprocket was put on the axle and the smaller on the beater -- it should have been the opposite. If you towed the thing fast, the beater acted kind of like a fan and flung chunks of poo 15 or 20 feet into the air. I had to shovel the whole thing out and put it on jacks to get the wheel off and swap the sprockets. There was a lot of laughing and some cursing.

  11. Ridana says

    One of the weirdest gross metaphors I’ve heard is “happy as a dead pig in the sunshine,” which I first heard from a ninety-something southern lady. I suppose this is a reference to the death rictus as the corpse swells in the heat of the day.

    Maybe “shit hits the fan” came from someone seeing a hippo defecate.

  12. foxi says

    This brought to mind the animal friendly alternative I came a cross a while ago: “to feed a fed horse”, which is something equally pointless but without the cruelty.
    In fact, PETA tried to popularize multiple other animal-friendly alternatives to English sayings including “bringing home the bagels” instead of “bringing home the bacon”, and “Feed to birds with one scone” instead of “Kill to birds with one stone”.

  13. ardipithecus says

    “Bad thing happen” = “shit happens”. No one says “cake happens” or “spaghetti happens”, so I doubt that the suggested new idioms will catch on.

    “Idioms, how do they work?”

  14. machintelligence says

    Manure spreaders and repairs to the same are always without warrantee. It is a product that no one wants to stand behind.

  15. Pierce R. Butler says

    Though never one to flinch from the fierce, author James Tiptree Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon) euphemized the epitome of this genre with “when the strawberries hit the fan” -- though I doubt the line would have worked as well de novo without contrast with the original.

    Some of this seems rather arbitrary: I (an omnivore) succeeded in unintentionally antagonizing a pair of vegetarians by saying I had “other fish to fry”, which struck them as an excessively violent metaphor.

    Oddly, most of these tropes don’t migrate across languages: picking up colorful phrases is one of my favorite parts of encountering different cultures.

  16. Sam N says

    One reason to use cuss words, and some of the uglier metaphors, as alluded to, but not directly said, is to indicate your own class.

    By no means did I grow up impoverished, but I remember buying jackets at good will when I was young. Eventually we could afford clothes at Kohl’s or Target. A generous neighbor subsidized my computer hobby, and I took an after school job to carry that on and buy video games I loved.

    That is a very different childhood experience from many of my fellow students when I attended graduate school. I’m still a bit stunned when I visit houses they grew up. They look like mansions to me.

    I take a certain perverse pleasure in the incongruity of a large vocabulary mixed with ‘dirty’ words. Especially when I’m talking to some high level scientist expressing disdain toward the impoverished. I’m not too concerned with politeness in such cases.

    I’m presently reading The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts which features a character with a similar characteristic.

  17. says

    Many metaphors turn out to have racist origins. It’s not hard to guess why “Shanghai’d” (kidnapped and taken to sea) isn’t appropriate.

    I learnt last year that “chop chop” (hurry up) has racist origins against ethnic Chinese people. That’s not a phrase I was in the habit of using, so I didn’t have to change. “Mañana” and “ppalli ppalli” more than suffice. The Canadianism “haul ass” also means to make haste, though that refers to moving one’s own posterior.

  18. anat says

    Mano, have you tried translating idioms from other languages? In Hebrew the expression for ‘belaboring the point’ would translate as ‘grinding water’.

  19. Mano Singham says

    anat @#20,

    I have not tried translations. I am not sure how a non-speaker of a language would even go about finding equivalent idioms.

  20. lorn says

    Both the swing and skinning of ‘the cat’ are references to cat-o-nine-tails. As referenced: a whip used for punishment. Lore is that it was stored in a bag so ‘skinning a cat’ is to have it removed from its bag for use. The ‘many ways to skin a cat’ is a warning about there are many rules and ways to end up flogged. Only later a way of expressing that there was more than one way to do a job. Both sayings come from the British navy where use of the lash was a regular event.

    I don’t know for sure but I speculate that these sorts of sayings are memory devices. England and her colonies are a people separated by a language. More so in the 1700s. Welshmen, Irish, Scots, and Londoners only nominally shared a language, even when all spoke ‘English’. And their backgrounds were wildly divergent. But all could find themselves pressed into Her Majesties navy.

    Where both “Many ways to skin a cat’ and indirectly ‘Room to swing a cat’ were colloquialism that were, in part, intended to remind those less familiar that they were under Royal navy discipline and keep the possibility of physical punishment in the front of their mind.

    There are quite a few saying that come from nautical backgrounds, if not just the Royal navy. The sayings ‘Between devil and the deep blue sea’ and ‘There will be the devil to pay’ don’t really conjure up the proper picture in modern times. It all gets clearer when you figure out that maintenance on a ship, even when underway, is an ongoing task for the crew. That caulking, hammering fibrous materials soaked in various compound to keep the water out as the wood of a ship shrinks and shifts was a constant concern. That it was called ‘paying’ a seam. Or that the longest seams that needed to be caulk were called “devils”.

    The ‘devil to pay’ meant to caulk one of the two longest seams on the ship. It was a long and difficult task in port or with the ship on a friendly beach. But should the seam need sealing at sea, long voyages and all that, they typically would continue sailing with you suspended on boson’s chair, a short plank on the end of a line. Literally suspended between the seam you are charged with hammering stuff into, the devil, and ‘blue water’, indicating deep water far from shore.

    The job is arduous, exhausting, and you might die. Slipping, or the ship rolling the wrong way suddenly as the wind shifts means you get wet, or lost. Falling off was pretty common and often people didn’t notice you were gone until muster the next day. Given that you might have gone into the drink many hours ago, and many sailing ships being unable to sail more than slightly into the wind, they usually didn’t go back. The phrase “Lost at sea” was used a lot.

    Which brings up “press gangs” and being ‘pressed into service’ or ‘Shanghaied’. Also being ‘slipped a mickey’ and ‘waking up in a crowd’.

    Colloquial phrases are a window into earlier times and the concerns of common people. They honor the hardships and concerns of our ancestors. Back in the day poorer merchants used horses long after motorized vehicles were available. And they used those horses right up until the day they died. If the horse won’t pull your wagon you have to. In may places and times bosses commonly beat employees. Any wonder they beat their horses. Yes, it is ugly. But life in a city all the way into the 1900s was often ugly. Until sewer and sanitation systems were installed raw sewage, both human and animal, flowed in the streets. Dead animals, including horses were common sights. I try to remember that when I start to think that modern life sucks. We have come a long way. Our ancestors didn’t have it quite so good.

    Sorry for going so long but it is all of a piece.

  21. Rob Grigjanis says

    lorn @22: Regarding Royal Navy jargon, there’s also “cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey”

  22. Mano Singham says

    lorn @#22,

    Thanks for that very interesting piece on the origins of these sayings. Given that the purpose of idioms and sayings is to drive home a point by providing a vivid image, if times have changed so much that the original image is no longer recognized and what replaces it is a different and cruel one, I think a case can still be made that the idiom should be retired.

  23. Rob Grigjanis says

    lorn @22: According to this, “between the devil and the deep blue sea” predates the nautical sense of “devil” by more than a century, with the earliest form being “between the devil and the Dead Sea”.

  24. Acolyte of Sagan says

    ‘When the shit hits the fan’ uses ‘shit’ as a metaphor for the kind of trouble nobody wants (in the shit: in it up to one’s neck, etc) so what it’s describing is a situation which, if it goes wrong, will cause a lot of trouble to be spread among a lot of people. The metaphor simply wouldn’t work with ‘cake’ or anything else easily scattered by a fan unless the replacement raised an image as unpleasant as the original.

    I can’t remember the details but there was once a tale doing the rounds about an actor who was excessively unpleasant to (I think) an autograph hunter, resulting in the offended person slapping the actor and causing one wag to comment ‘The fan’s hit the shit!’

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