A metaphor is a direct comparison between two or more seemingly unrelated subjects, a subset of analogy and closely related to other rhetorical concepts such as comparison, simile, allegory and parable.  But the reason most of us enjoy using metaphors, is because they make our language come alive—in other words, metaphors can be fun.

Metaphors help us understand one idea by means of another, making similarity the key to metaphorical thinking—we understand the unfamiliar by means of what is familiar.  This type of thinking isn’t a new phenomenon in American culture, as a look back to the days of yesteryear when we called locomotives “iron horses” and automobiles “horseless carriages” will attest.

Roger von Oech, a Menlo Park, California creativity consultant who makes a living exploring the nooks and crannies of the human mind has pointed out that the world of finance has given us quite a few entertaining metaphors.

Suppose that after a cursory study of the English language, Martians landed on Wall Street, and after listening to a dozen or so “high-rolling” traders, might they not think the world of finance was somehow related to irrigation or bodies of water?

Why else would we have such terms as: flood the market, liquid assets, laundered money, solvency, slush fund, pump money in, deposits, frozen assets, float a loan, bank, take a bath, cash flow, washed up, sinking fund, capital drain and the stock is under water?  After a day on the floor of one of our stock exchanges, could anyone blame the Martians if they thought they were dealing with plumbers instead of bankers?

The business community also makes generous use of metaphors, with many of the more colorful coming from the world of sports.  How many of us have attended “kick-off” meetings while aspiring to be “#1” by making “knockout” presentations?

When I was the president of an insurance brokerage in Denver, my management “team” was always looking for salespeople with “proven track records,” and if we didn’t feel an individual had enough experience, he or she might be referred to as a “lightweight,” as opposed to someone we respected who could be a “heavyweight” or a “heavy-hitter.”

We “sparred” with underwriters on a daily basis in order to get the best terms for our clients, created and followed “game-plans” and when sales calls didn’t go very well, we dejectedly admitted that we didn’t “get to first base.”

But aside from being entertaining, metaphors are also genuine tools for increased comprehension.  Ever wonder what “Dolby Stereo” is?  Someone could explain its bits and bytes to me “until the cows came home” (is that using a metaphor to frame another metaphor?) and I still wouldn’t understand the technology.

But one enterprising engineer from Silicon Valley explained Ray Dolby’s technological breakthrough in a way that even I could appreciate:  He referred to Dolby Sound as a kind of “sonic laundry,” i.e. the technology “washes out” the dirt (noise) from the clothes (sound) without disturbing the fabric (signal).

A noted ophthalmologist once used the following metaphor to explain the surgical removal of a cataract, likening it to a time when convertible automobiles were much more common than they are today.

Back then, the front and side windows were made of glass, but the back window was made of plastic.  But after about six months the plastic in the rear window would begin to yellow even though you could still see through it.  Then about a year later the plastic became more yellow and eventually after a couple of years the plastic turned opaque and the owner would have to take the car back to the dealer and have it replaced.

Well, when we’re born the eyes are like that original plastic window—they’re clear and we can easily see through them; but over time, the eyes become occluded (the plastic yellows) and we have to “replace the window” by having tissue that has formed over the eyes surgically removed.

The above notwithstanding, my favorite metaphors always involve the meaning of life, as in “Life is like…”

Here are a few:

  • Life is like a maze in which you try to avoid the exit
  • Life is like a poker game, it involves both skill and luck, sometimes you bet, check, bluff or raise and you learn from those you play with.  Sometimes you win with a pair but lose with a full-house—but whatever happens, it’s best to keep on shuffling along.
  • Life is like riding an elevator.  It has a lot of ups and downs and someone is always pushing your buttons—sometimes you get the shaft, but what really bothers you, are the jerks.
  • And of course, Mrs. Gump’s words to live by, “Life is like a box of chocolates, ‘cuz you never know what you’re gonna get.”

Ours is a rich and colorful language and studying it is a continual source of fascination.

Quote of the day: “Do you know what a foreign accent is?  It’s a sign of bravery.”—Any Chua


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