3

An old Norfolk character I knew, used to say: 'Tha's no use you a-putten yar foot down, if you hearnt got a leg to stand on'. In English, that is: 'It's no good putting your foot down if you haven't a leg to stand on'.

When I was at school we were always warned against 'mixed metaphors'. So are mixed metaphors of this kind acceptable?

  • 1
    Absolutely (I think). Some of the funniest metaphores are mixed (often because what was metaphor becomes concrete, as in your example.) – anongoodnurse Feb 9 '14 at 13:13
  • 1
    Acceptable by whom? This is purely opinion-based. (And people already started voicing their opinion, and other people already started downvoting them.) – RegDwigнt Feb 9 '14 at 13:34
  • Wait...how is this a mixed metaphor? – Mitch Feb 10 '14 at 1:04
  • It isn't, because it uses 'foot/leg' on its both legs. – SF. Feb 10 '14 at 1:34
5

America, at least, has a long-standing love of mixed metaphors, which has been defended in print for over 100 years. That may explain our continuing fascination with Yogi Berra (famous for his malapropisms and mixed metaphors).

I am tempted to believe that the indiscriminate condemnation of mixed metaphors arises more often from pedantry than from common sense. (Edward Everett Hale, Jr. Constructive Rhetoric, 1896)

[T]o the fertile mind that thinks up a series of comparisons one gives admiration--and defense against those who misunderstand the ban on mixed metaphors. (Wilson Follett and Erik Wensberg, Modern American Usage, rev. ed. Macmillan, 1998)

What is called mixed metaphor . . . is the coming into consciousness of a mixing that goes on all the time, a consciousness that offends our sensibilities because it 'calls attention to the device' and perhaps might reveal the inexplicable bases of our worldview. (Dale Pesman, Some Expectations of Coherence in Culture Implied by the Prohibition of Mixed Metaphor: Beyond Metaphor: The Theory of Tropes in Anthropology, Stanford Univ. Press, 1991)

Some amusing examples:

"It's like deja-vu, all over again." Yogi Berra (i guess this would be a mixed simile.)

"That's awfully thin gruel for the right wing to hang their hats on." (MSNBC, Sep. 3, 2009)

"A leopard can't change his stripes." (Al Gore)

"I knew enough to realize that the alligators were in the swamp and that it was time to circle the wagons." (attributed to Rush Limbaugh)

"biting the hand that rocks the cradle..." (Sherri Barber)

I wouldn’t eat that with a ten-foot pole.
It’s as easy as falling off a piece of cake.
You can’t change the spots on an old dog.
The fan is gonna hit the roof.

  • I suppose the argument against them is that they tend to repeat traditional ways of looking at things, and stand in the way of new approaches to problems. But they are an effective way of crystallising arguments. I think that you are right that America does make more use of metaphors. – WS2 Feb 9 '14 at 13:54
  • 1
    If there's a spark of pity in your hearts, water it and make it grow. (not original, but I can't trace the source.) – Edwin Ashworth Feb 9 '14 at 14:49
  • @EdwinAshworth - what a great example! – anongoodnurse Feb 9 '14 at 14:51
  • Don't encourage me. The examples will get even more dreadful. John Prescott (our version of G W when it came to non-Churchillian oratory) came up with 'The green belt is one of Labour's best policies! And we intend to build on it!' – Edwin Ashworth Feb 9 '14 at 14:55
  • 1
    "I really didn't say everything I said" - Yogi Berra – Jon Hanna Feb 9 '14 at 23:55
1

No its not, but...

The example you give has a force that comes from it's "wrongness". It leads the listener or reader to consider the meaning behind what are relatively stale metaphors, of the sort that are normally best avoided anyway, and adds the sort of humour that suggests wisdom (rightly or not, people are more prepared to believe something when it's funny).

The advice that one shouldn't mix metaphors isn't a grammar or syntax rule; it's a stylistic guideline.

Generally, if you mix metaphors you run the risk of weakening the metaphors partly because you've done damage to the comparison you were making, and partly because you focus the listener or readers attention on your technique rather than your message.

And since normally you want clear images in your audience's mind, and for them to focus on your message rather than your delivery, mixing metaphors is therefore generally bad.

But, if you make that very reaction part of your rhetorical approach, then it can either drive a message home, make them laugh (a great many humourists are fond of deliberately mixed metaphors for precisely this reason) or both.

So too with anything that brings the mechanics of the metaphor to our attention, rather than let it subtly fo its work, as is normally best. E.g.:

Using a metaphor in front of a man as unimaginative as Ridcully was like a red flag to a bu... was like putting something very annoying in front of someone who was annoyed by it.

That completely destroys the metaphor as we'd normally use it, but it's value is precisely that it did so. With a fresh lively and apposite metaphor this would be a mistake, but here it's the whole point.

In all, there's a good reason not to damage the delivery of a metaphor, and mixing it is one of the ways you can do so, but once you know why you normally shouldn't, you can choose to do precisely that.

Of course with a bad mixed metaphor you can end up doing both; your piece utterly fails as intended, but continues to be repeated as (unintended) comedy. My favourite is one from the House of Commons:

I smell a rat. I see it floating in the air. But I shall nip it in the bud!

Conversely, a deliberate case from the same House was:

The Honorable and Gallant Member is a cowardly liar.

It's not quite a metaphor, since one is meant to believe that Members really are honourable and those in the armed services really are Gallant. But since Parliamentary language requires one to say so whether one believes it or not, that creates a new sense of each that the above deliberately mixes in a way that is literally "bad", as it results in something that taken one way is contradictory and in another a pairing of mismatched senses of which a mixed metaphor is another example (the guideline that one shouldn't mix metaphors a specific case of that) but in effect very good.

(It's still unparliamentary language and would bring censure from the Speaker, but that's another matter).

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.