Mastery of the metaphor

David Bernstein puts you in the picture regarding the merits of metaphor and simile in the written language – and hopes that it’s all now clear as day

One advantage we writers have over artists is that the pictures we draw are in the mind. The reader or listener participates in the creative process and tends to approve the execution since to do otherwise is to deny his or her own artistic ability. A picture may be worth a thousand words. A word, however, is worth just one mental picture, the one completed by the recipient.

The writer may use a word-picture to illustrate, illuminate or embellish a thought. Very often, though, it is used to express it more forcefully, setting an abstract thought in a concrete form.

The writer may use a simile when one thing is likened to another or, more dramatically, a metaphor when the thing resembled is used instead of the original word.

The metaphor is (to use a simile) like a substitute footballer who replaces another player. When the metaphor comes off the bench (to use a metaphor) it may strengthen the attack. Imagery’s prime task is not to decorate but to strengthen the writer’s argument. It must clarify and sharpen the focus (mixed metaphors do the opposite).

A metaphor extends our working language. We transfer our thought processes from one set of words (or tools) to another. While we engage in the new technology – of the image – we still hang on to the object that is being compared. However, whereas a simile presents two thoughts side by side, metaphor presents a single image viewed, as it were, through bifocals.

‘Metaphor,’ explained Sir Herbert Read, ‘is the expression of a complex idea, not by analysis or by direct statement, but by sudden perception of an objective relation.’

I enjoyed a sudden perception one Saturday morning last month. On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, presenter Martha Kearney was meant to read a lead-in to weather forecaster Darren Beck. Instead, she began to read aloud his report. She stopped, paused, apologised. Beck, without missing a beat, said, ‘Thanks for stealing my thunder.’ The aptness of the response was made even more acute by the fact his report contained a storm warning.

It often takes a jolt like that to make you realise the picture in the word. Custom may have rubbed away the image till the force or, indeed, the meaning of the original has disappeared. Many years ago I was watching Chelsea. I looked at the crowded terrace of standing supporters, an undulating mass.

I suddenly saw (in both senses) a ‘sea of faces’. It is when we use a word picture without seeing the picture that mixed metaphors occur. On BBC’s news a Middle East commentator said ‘The Syrians will be leaning over backwards to build bridges.’ Maybe that’s the usual method in Damascus, but I doubt it.

A mixed metaphor, by juxtaposing two clichés, reveals the original image latent beneath each.

Language expresses thought. And, of course, reveals it. Imagery is particularly revealing. Take the language of brand extension. Some call it brand stretching: its image of an elastic band acts as a warning – it can go too far and snap. And doesn’t the fact that as the elastic stretches and becomes weaker, so the extensions are less robust than the master brand. ‘Master brand’, of course, is another image suggesting that it’s totally in charge and that all the extensions are subordinate. ‘Mother brand’ implies a closer relationship, but, again, the extensions are subordinate. One colleague’s image of brand extension was of a train (the master brand) pulling a series of coaches (extensions).

Most of these images, of course, assume a permanency and unchangeability in the original brand – and a dependency upon it for the growth of the range. In the past decade, another image has entered the language: ‘brand architecture’. This raises a question: where do you place the master brand? One executive was absolutely clear. It’s the roof. Another was equally resolute. It’s the foundations. Either way, it’s hard to add extensions without a massive amount of rebuilding.

A metaphor may outgrow its usefulness, become restrictive. Better, maybe, to try another metaphor. A chrysalis that becomes a butterfly? Or something organic Рan acorn, a root, a tree? Each reflects different perception of brand growth. Metaphor, then, is no mere ornament. Just as product design is not post facto appliqu̩ work. Metaphor is a pair of overalls we don in order the better to work out our thoughts and, more importantly, convey them to another.

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