The Mixed Metaphor and its Relatives

A succession of metaphors or similes drawn from different fields of comparison sometimes produces a laughably  clashing effect – even when they are dead or half-dead metaphors.

There are many celebrated examples that make the point without need of comment:

X We stand on the abyss – let us march forward together.

X You are sitting on the fence and burying your head in the sand.

Mr  Ian Smith, when Prime Minister of Rhodesia, reportedly said:  X Are we going to sit back and take this lying down? And Sam Goldwyn the film producer apparently once complained that  X Every director bites the hand that lays the golden egg. Similarly:

X West Berlin is an oasis of democracy in a sea of communism.

-John Hosken, The Listener

X So let me look  at the roots of a few sacred cows.

-Sir John Donaldson, New Law Journal

X That’s an invitation to cock my leg over a wild goose and go off into a mare’s nest.

-Lord Bancroft, BBC Radio 4

Perhaps the most famous example of bizarrely mixed metaphors is that attributed to an 18th-century Irish  politician:

X Mr Speaker, I smell a rat; I see him forming in the air and darkening the sky; but I’ll nip him in the bud.

-attributed to Sir Boyle Roche, quoted in

The Oxford Book of Quotations

In a series of letters to The Times in 1989, readers listed favourite mixed metaphors that they had come across over the years.

An American participant at an Oxford seminar, for instance, earnestly declared that ‘Chaucer stands with one foot in the Middle Ages, while with the other he salutes the rising dawn of the English Renaissance.’

The magazine Community Care recently described the department of Social Security as a ‘backwater clogged with hot potatoes’.

At a scientific meeting, one scientist accused another of ‘trying to bolster up the scaffolding of a collapsing hypothesis with a red herring’.

The Mixed Metaphor has two well-known cousins, both discussed elsewhere – Malapropism and the unintended pun. It also has three rather more obscure cousins – the Dubious Metaphor, the Inappropriate Metaphor, and the Mixed Idiom (or Mixed Cliché) – which deserve a brief mention here.

The Dubious Metaphor is one that does not quite work; for example, ? defusing tension.

You can ease or reduce tension, or perhaps defuse a tense situation, but hardly ?

Defuse tension – the two ideas, like oil and water, simply refuse to mix properly .

That example is taken from a BBC radio programme, as are all these other dubious combinations:

?? unravelling highlights

?? chalking up a landmark

?? sabotaging the atmosphere

?? a last-ditch summit

?? ironing out teething troubles

The inappropriate Metaphor , next: like the Dubious Metaphor, it usally contains dead or half-dead metaphors. The clash this time is between the metaphor and the context:

? There has been a spate of  droughts in recent years.

? That man in the wheelchair is always jumping to conclusions.

?? He goes around stirring up apathy.

? Your insurance claim is proceeding like a house on fire.

Here is an 18-century example, from a judge, later to be Lord Chief Justice of England; convicting a butler of stealing wine, the Judge apparently said:

X You burst through all restraints of religion and morality, and have for years been feathering your nest with your master’s bottles.

-Lord Kenyon, quoted in

George A. Morton and D.M. Malloch,

Law and Laughter.

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