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I came across the phrase snake metaphor in the article of August 2nd New York Times reporting "Underwear run in the Central Park" under the title, “Got Briefs? This Run's for You.”

It was a hilarious and humorous report. But I was caught with the phrase snake metaphor in the following sentence:

Maybe it was the shirt, though in truth the sensation was something like running with a Burmese python wrapped around your chest. Sorry; normally I try to limit myself to one snake metaphor per column.

As I found no entry of snake metaphor in dictionaries at hand or in Cambridge and Merriam -Webster online dictionary, I think this is a simple combination of words, not an idiom. But what does snake metaphor actually mean? Does it mean weird metaphor? Can we say snake joke?

I’m also not very sure of how I feel running with a Burmese python wrapped around my chest. Does it mean heavy and cold?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 10 down vote accepted

There is nothing special about the phrase "snake metaphor." The sentence that you quoted contains a metaphor about a Burmese python, which is a kind of snake. Earlier in the article, the author makes a different snake metaphor:

It took me a few minutes to wriggle into it — picture a film of a snake shedding its skin, played backward — but once I did, the women in the group were agog over my impressive physique.

In this case, the author means that he has already used a metaphor involving a snake shedding its skin, so his reference to limiting himself to one snake metaphor per column is just a joke to point this out.

Pythons are constrictor snakes (they kill their prey by squeezing them to death), so I imagine that he means that the shirt is squeezing him very hard and making it difficult for him to breathe.

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It is literally a snake metaphor. –  Unreason Aug 3 '11 at 15:50

In the passage you quote, the author is making an apology (perhaps a mock one, intended to point something out rather than truly apologize) for making two references to snakes. When the author says:

Sorry, I normally try to limit myself to one...

We know this is not the first occurrence. I might say something like this upon taking a second serving of a dish, when I know I shouldn't, but can't help myself.

To find the first instance, look backwards; in the previous paragraph of the article in question, another reference to snakes appears:

It took me a few minutes to wriggle into it — picture a film of a snake shedding its skin, played backward — but once I did, the women in the group were agog over my impressive physique. At least I think they were; it was hard to tell because most of them couldn’t stop laughing. [n.b. emphasis added]

Snake metaphor can be understood if you take snake to modify metaphor - so it's just a metaphor involving snakes, as train metaphor would refer to a metaphor involving trains ("This answer is running off the rails," "No point in stopping now that the train has left the station!"). Though the author's choice might be odd, or these might be weird metaphors, snake metaphor is not equivalent to any weird metaphor.

The two metaphors in the article appear when the author likens himself to a snake shedding, and then likens the shirt to a python. Because of his description of the shirt as one that "shapes and firms", and his difficulty getting into it, we know that with the python reference he probably doesn't quite mean it's heavy or hot, but that it is constricting about him like a python suffocating its prey.

Finally, can we say snake joke? While a joke and a metaphor aren't the same, the author's use does seem to be intended humorously. The choice of reference to snakes is also funny because, given the context about running in nothing but underwear, it brings to mind euphemisms like trouser snake for a body part that one might fear would be less than adequately covered without trousers. So I think we might, indeed, assume this is a bit of a snake joke.

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But what does snake metaphor actually mean? Does it mean weird metaphor?

It's not a weird metaphor. It's a metaphor that uses snakes. If I was use a clothing metaphor in my text, I would have had a metaphor that portrayed things as clothes e.g.Shakespeare's Macbeth used an instance of a clothing metaphor:

now does he feel his title
Hang loose about him, like a giant's robe
Upon a dwarfish thief

Here, Shakespeare is using a metaphor for Macbeth's title, and he is using clothes to make the metaphor, thus, a clothing metaphor.

Thus, in your example, when the author referred to a snake metaphor, he was referring to the fact that he was using metaphors involving snakes.

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@Kit and other answerers. Thanks a lot for your inut. I totally overlooked the link of the writer’s reference of wriggling into T-shirt like reversing the film of ‘snake shedding its skin’ and ‘Burmese python’ in the subsequent paragraph. I wasn’t aware of that until reminded by all of you. Now it’s all clear to me. It was my primitive misreading, and it’s no wonder that I was unable to find ‘snake metaphor’ in any of dictionaries. –  Yoichi Oishi Aug 3 '11 at 5:51
@Yoichi, um, I'm not Kit......jks.:) –  Thursagen Aug 3 '11 at 5:52

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