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More musings on mixed metaphors

July 4, 2014

Why do mixed metaphors grate so? In his essay ‘Politics and the English language’, George Orwell wrote that incompatible metaphors were “a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying”. I think by that he meant that the writer isn’t interested in how they’re saying whatever they want to say – they may be very interested indeed in the subject, of course. A mixed metaphor shows inattention to the effect one’s words produce, a blindness to the images they evoke.

But mixed metaphors aren’t necessarily the result of laziness. They can be the result of trying too hard. The writer wants to deploy as many striking phrases as possible, in an effort to impress. This is what’s really annoying. The badness of a mixed metaphor somehow seems worse because the perpetrator was convinced it was good. And it’s distracting – the actual meaning of what is said gets blotted out by one’s exasperation at the clumsiness of expression.

Here’s an example from Matthew Norman’s column about sport in today’s Daily Telegraph (he’s writing about the optimism engendered by British sporting success in 2013): “It was possible then, with a delicate lurch into fantasyland, to envisage this torrent of success infecting Roy Hodgson’s squad in Brazil”.
A lurch into fantasyland (not just any old lurch, but a “delicate” one) which allows one to envisage a torrent? Which infects a squad? This is metaphor-mixing gone mad.

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