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Post-John Boehner, New York Times unleashes metaphorical tsunami

metaphorsHow many metaphors can The New York Times pack into one article about the resignation of House Speaker John Boehner? Enough metaphors to choke a . . . c’mon, help me here. To choke a something-or-other. Can you spare a metaphor?

Metaphors are a great way to frame a story; knowledgeable people will often supply one in a quote. Or maybe two. But it’s tough for readers to follow the story if the metaphors keep changing their perspective. That’s why I got vertigo as I read the 13-plus metaphors in the Sunday New York Times front-page article “The Post-Boehner Congress and Washington’s Sense of Dread.” Here are some excerpts from the 1600-word story with the metaphors highlighted.

Some in Congress and the White House hold out hope that Mr. Boehner’s departure and the election of a new speaker will break the fever among conservatives, who have been plotting his downfall for over a year, and grant his replacement a grace period.

“To get members to bust the budget caps, they have to threaten a Christmas-vacation shutdown for members of Congress,” said Representative Thomas Massie, Republican of Kentucky and one of the rebels who pushed for Mr. Boehner’s overthrow. “Heaven help the speaker who replaces John Boehner and goes along with that charade.”

“Now you’ve really emboldened the right. They feel at least they have a head on the mantel.” [said Tom Davis, retired House member from Virginia.]

[Chris Krueger of Guggenheim Partners] dismissed hopes that Mr. Boehner was about to play a bipartisan Mr. Fix-It on his way out the door. . . . “Essentially, Boehner is the kindergarten teacher who is leaving his flock unsupervised and wants to get all the sharp objects out of the room before he goes off into the sunset,” Mr. Krueger wrote.

Before the news of Mr. Boehner’s decision had even sunk in, conservative knives were out for the heir apparent, Kevin McCarthy of California, the House majority leader.

Mark Levin, the conservative talk show host, called Mr. McCarthy “Eric Cantor with 10 less I.Q. points.

Mr. Massie, the Kentucky Republican, said simply moving the leadership below Mr. Boehner “up one notch” would show that the party remained “tone deaf” to the discontent that swept Mr. Boehner from the stage.

Mr. Schiliro compared conservatives in Washington to people sipping water from an “unquenchable cup.” He said they would not be satisfied by Mr. Boehner’s fall.

Matt Kibbe, the former head of the Tea Party group FreedomWorks, . . . has been jousting with Republican leaders for years. “If McCarthy picks up the torch and runs the same direction, it’s going to get worse, not better.”

“It’s going to be a minefield to navigate,” [David Axlerod] said.

Boy, navigating that minefield while jousting and carrying that torch will certainly require much more than a bipartisan Mr. Fix-It kindergarten teacher, especially with all those conservative knives and other sharp objects preventing the charade required to get that head on the mantel.

There’s certainly a fever here, but it’s in the New York Times newsroom, not in Congress.

Just as with any other rhetorical device, don’t overdo it with metaphors. It frustrates your readers.

[tweetthis twitter_handles=”jbernoff”]Metaphors are like cinnamon; for flavorful writing, sprinkle, don’t slather.[/tweetthis]

Graphic: The Onion

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  1. I’m a big fan of metaphors! I read a lot of International Relations theory and it is filled with very abstract concepts, often layered upon each other. After a while my brain simply switches off. I’ve noticed the best writers (Steven Pinker comes to mind) use metaphors to break up these abstractions, and it works wonders. But as you say, only if they are used correctly. Many of the ones in the NYT article are cliched metaphors. I think originality is key. Original metaphors wake up the brain (or my brain at least). Cliched ones activate familiar parts of the brain, which can be helpful, but original ones are much better.

    1. Great comment. That’s why I’d rather read “as dead as a republican birthday party for Obamacare” than “dead on arrival.” Creativity in metaphors, applied appropriately, is wonderful. Multiple contradictory cliches, on the other hand, are just distracting.

  2. What’s going on in Congress is different from anything we’ve seen before. As a result, I think that the reporter — and many of the participants — use metaphors in a desperate effort to make sense of it. Like a drowning man grasping for a piece of driftwood. (Which reminds me: what’s your take on similes?)

    1. You are undoubtedly correct, Larry. As John commented below, they can’t figure it out, so they call a bunch of folks, get a bunch of mutually contradictory quotes, and fling it onto the page by deadline and call it an article.

      Real writers don’t make a big deal about the difference between similes and metaphors — only English teachers care. A metaphor, taken broadly, is a comparison between something and a familiar something else. Whether you use the word “like” isn’t the key determiner of whether you’ve done a good job.

  3. The experts you’ve pointed out smell of “deadlines”, if you ask me. It reads like it was rushed, with out much thought (or desire) for creative metaphors. I’m sure there was an editor who may or may not looked like J. Jonna Jameson screaming “PARKER?!?! Where’s my Bonher article?” And if there happened to be something juicy in the adjective, adverb or metaphor department in the initial draft, I’m sure the editor wouldn’t go for it. Back when I was responsible for content development along side design and development for sites, I would always hear “WOW!!! This is so creative! I love it. Really compelling and funny. Ok, now tone it down because I don’t think our audience will get it”