Ministers have decided to “balance the books on the backs of the starving people of Yemen” in an act that will see tens of thousands die and damage the UK’s global influence, the head of the UN’s Office for Humanitarian Affairs has said.


balance the books = to show that the amount of money a business has received is equal to the amount spent


the "backs of the poor" is an-often used cliché that relates to the labour of poor working people who carried burdens for low pay. As a cliché, it is often used as a metaphor for injustice imposed by others. There are many examples in:


Ernest Gowers expressed the dangers of careless use of cliché:

And almost all writers fall occasionally into the trap of using a metaphor infelicitously. It is worth taking great pains to avoid doing so, because the reader who notices it will deride you. The statesman who said that sections of the population were being “squeezed flat by inflation” was not then in his happiest vein, nor the enthusiastic scientist who announced the discovery of a “virgin field pregnant with possibilities”.2

2 The Deputy Prime Minister not so long ago roundly declared, “We will not balance the books on the backs of the poor.”


The intention of the UN spokesman (who is not the first to do this, there being many other instances as above) is thus commendably to draw attention to the undesirability of ministers' giving priority to financial balance rather than to the misfortunes of the poor. However, the unquestioning use of this cliché also brings up the unintended and diversionary mental image of ministers adjusting the balance of loads of books carried by poor people such as porters. Herein lies the thoughtless ambiguity to which I refer in the question.

This is an example of the importance of saying what you mean and meaning what you say.

Do we have a term that succinctly describes the careless ambiguity of the material in quotes? As it stands it looks like a heartless pun or an unintended double-entendre.

  • @KannE thanks for seeking clarification. I have added a little more explanation.
    – Anton
    Commented Mar 8, 2021 at 10:02
  • 4
    I don't see what you mean by "ambiguity". If you're just calling attention to the rather clumsy "mixed metaphor" juxtaposing figurative balancing the books and the backs of the poor, I'd have to say that's all it is. A clunky mixed metaphor. (But only because it was presumably unintended. If it had been deliberate I might well think it was clever! :) Commented Mar 8, 2021 at 12:56
  • 1
    I'd assume it's meant to be offensive and shocking, deliberately invoking the image of an accountant using a stack of corpses as a table to emphasise the heartlessness. The ambiguity between literal and metaphorical senses increases the strength of the image.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Mar 8, 2021 at 14:13
  • I appreciate that others may miss the point I tried to make perhaps over-briefly, so have expanded my question.
    – Anton
    Commented Mar 8, 2021 at 14:32
  • 1
    thoughtless conjures up uncaring. So, "thoughtless ambiguity" itself sounds funny. I think you do mean something said without thinking, but not thoughtless....**without thinking** and thoughtless are not semantically equivalent....
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 8, 2021 at 14:57

1 Answer 1


This sounds like catachresis, which is a rhetorical catch-all for semantic and metaphoric abuses. The Oxford English Dictionary definition includes the misuse of figurative language:

Improper use of words; application of a term to a thing which it does not properly denote; abuse or perversion of a trope or metaphor.

While some sources primarily focus on catachresis as an issue with misapplying individual terms, Patricia Parker highlights how catachresis has often been applied to "an abuse of metaphorical transfers" by Richard Lanham, Northrop Frye, and many others ("Metaphor and Catachresis"). Catachresis can be used deliberately for rhetorical effect or unintentionally. Lists of examples include strained metaphors or colorful cliches:

‘Tis deepest winter in Lord Timon’s purse. (Shakespeare, Timon of Athens, found in Grammarist)

A man that studies revenge keeps his own wounds green. (Bacon, found in Kip Wheeler's page)

We are riding hell for leathor into a health-care box canyon full of spending quicksand, cactus tax hikes, policy briar patches, complete with CMS regulatory rattlesnakes, scorpions, and bad-news bears. (Pat Roberts, found in Trivium, p. 255)

  • A serious answer to a serious question. Merriam Webster has : use of a forced and especially paradoxical figure of speech (such as blind mouths). I did not know this word and am grateful to you.
    – Anton
    Commented Mar 9, 2021 at 7:50

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