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.