Metaphorically Speaking

On average, how many metaphors do human beings use in the course of daily speech? It’s a lot more than you probably think.

Skip the next section to get right to the answer. Read through if you’re interested in how I came upon the figure. (It has to do with New Testament Greek and various interpretations of what the Apostle Paul has to say about an issue in the early church in Corinth regarding prostitution. I should note: by no means do I wish to add to the demonization of sex workers. Rendered in English, the language of the passage in question, which I do not quote below, requires, I think, a trigger warning. With that said, there are important contextual and historic details that do not make it into “plain English.” In short, Paul seems concerned with Christians engaging in pagan rites through what as known as temple prostitution.)


I was doing some reading on the metaphorical linguistics of the Apostle Paul, chasing a hunch that what he has to say about prostitution in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 may be metaphorical, or, at the very least, practical in ways that have nothing to do with sex work. What if, for example, evangelical and fundamentalist Christians wed to Donald Trump considered the possibility that they were engaged idolatry? Certainly, that’s not a new charge. But passages like this excerpt from Psalm 146 haven’t seem to taken hold:

Praise the Lord.

Praise the Lord, my soul.

I will praise the Lord all my life;
    I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
Do not put your trust in princes,
    in human beings, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;

We know a thing or two about the ways some evangelicals and fundamentalists, when convenient, fixate on sex. What if the real sin is joining yourself (and by extension, in Paul’s thinking, joining Christ) to the bacchanal of hatred, racism, carnage, and terror that was January 6? If a certain set of self-identifying “conservative Christians” yawn away the charges of idolatry, maybe something more scandalous will be more convicting.

Likely not, but that’s how I got to the primary source for today’s literary reflection. I’ve talked before about dying metaphors (it’s a relatively popular post here, almost up there with no, Mad World is not by REM) and again here and here.


It turns out that we use a lot of metaphors.

(Citations are at the end of this post).

So I knew all about dying metaphors, but I had never heard of frozen metaphors (given the context, the term brought to mind old jokes about Calvinists). There seems to be some conflation, at least on Wikipedia, between frozen and dead metaphors. Frozen metaphors seem to have gone more fully and more finally through the process of literalization. I had never really thought of “table leg” as a metaphor of any kind, or even a turn of phrase. I have always thought of it as the literal object. What else would you call the leg of a table, anyway? Was there some point in the history of English language where “hands of the clock” was considered a poetic expression? When we think of metaphors, it’s usually in the context of literature, polemics, propaganda. Turns out they’re right in front of us in the every day use of things we take for granted.

In the end, of course, we might admit that because we can only know objects through our senses (Kant, and others), every single one of our experiences is a kind of metaphor. In that case, to use another, Gibbs is probably low-balling.

This footnote is from Wanamaker, Charles A. “METAPHOR AND MORALITY: EXAMPLES OF PAUL’S MORAL THINKING IN 1 CORINTHIANS 1-5.” Neotestamentica, vol. 39, no. 2, 2005, pp. 409–433. JSTOR, Accessed 12 Jan. 2021; the original Gibbs paper is here.

The Crying of Lot 49 (No Post on Sundays)

Right you are, Harry!

As you may know (I pretend there are people following along), I have been reading The Crying of Lot 49. The post horn is a central image. Yesterday, I reported back that an extraterrestrial encounter with Billy Joel has made me question what Pynchon makes of the modern world. So much terrible, lying media (the muting of truth), and so much inconsequential media (the scholarly paper from 1975 I linked to is one example, this blog itself is another).

Entropy and synchronicity are central to the novel. The abstract to this piece on JStor suggests that Pynchon’s obsession (speaking of Synchronicity) with punning shows that Lot advances language as the only possible perpetual motion machine. Puns are necessarily synchronistic, and they generate all kinds of permutations without requiring more input:

Thomas Pynchon offers, in “The Crying of Lot 49” (1966) and other novels [Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), “Mason and Dixon” (1997)], the pun as an energy-generating alternative to entropy in its ability to multiply meanings, to proliferate “output” from a single source, a word, or an image. In Pynchon’s usage, the pun, even more than Maxwell’s Demon, defies the second law of thermodynamics: it actually creates energy, causing a word to do the work of several with minimal effort. A look into Pynchon’s Puritan past sounds the historical possibilities ofLot 49, suggesting that Pynchon’s puns reinscribe the sacred into the secular world, visiting a supernatural effect upon the world of physical laws to defy those laws and to create life out of the void.

I’d say that this whole enterprise requires more than minimal effort. Yes, these three posts have all come from variations on the words post and horn, but, inconsequential as they are, writing them was only possible because of my undergraduate studies, two advanced degrees (divinity, creative writing) and an obsessive, life-long romance with popular music. I mean, just because the inputs aren’t new doesn’t mean a hell of a lot (there, again, a pun) didn’t go into their acquisition.

Then again, if the point is that once you have acquired the needed inputs of language and culture, you can propagate a hell of a lot without going back to the well, then maybe. But Chapter 5 was a lot of work. A lot of new work. The reading itself, I mean.

I’m also reading Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow. I understand most of Humboldt’s increasingly pedantic obsessions, and relate to them, only because I’ve been educated in an adjacent world. And look, to extend the Lot image, I’m not trying to toot my own horn (no post on Sundays). I’m able to do what I do because of a long story of generational struggle and sacrifice.

But what do I do? What are any of us doing? I said these posts are inconsequential, and they are. How many tens of thousands (Saul has thousands, David his tens of thousands) of people are on these delivery systems, heavily educated, desperately trying to unmute? We think blogs and tweets give us a voice, but they don’t. Not really. What’s the sound of one hand clapping? Of a tree falling in an empty wood? Put your ear next to your keyboard and you’ll know.

But still, we can’t just do nothing. Doing nothing just won’t do. There is too damn much invested in all of this. There is too much invested in you. There are too many miracles, too many traumas, too many things have gone into the making of you to do nothing. One option is interpretation, putting some kind of frame to the collision of worlds (remembering that a pun is a collision of words, expectations). As we learn in Chapter 5:

“You know what a miracle is. Not what Bakunin said. But another world’s intrusion into this one. Most of the time we coexist peacefully, but when we do touch there’s cataclysm.

In other words, behold the hurricane and try to find meaning in its wake.

I wrote this on Saturday but scheduled it for Sunday, mostly because I posted once already on Saturday, but also because I wanted to make a Harry Potter joke. People like wizards because we all want to believe that if we get the words right, something will happen.

This being Sunday, we could talk about Pynchon’s religious imagery, and, again, about the collision of worlds and words. We could talk about our writerly catechisms, our largely muted efforts at mediating the process of flesh becoming word. We could talk about the irony of voice-to-text, of “ones and zeros, twinned” and so on. It’s all there in Pynchon, in Milton, etc.

There, for now, you have it.

Opening Lines: Victory by Joseph Conrad

Re-posting this from a few years ago.  A list of people as good at this whole business as Joseph Conrad would be very short.

There is, as every schoolboy knows in this scientific age, a very close chemical relation between coal and diamonds. It is the reason, I believe, why some people allude to coal as “black diam…

Source: Opening Lines: Victory by Joseph Conrad – Chris Cocca

Related:  Reading and Revising with Joseph Conrad and Ann Hood.

Literary Lexicon: What’s A Dying Metaphor?


“A dying metaphor is a derogatory term coined by George Orwell in his essay Politics and the English Language. Orwell defines a dying metaphor as a metaphor that isn’t dead (dead metaphors are different, as they are treated like ordinary words), but has been worn out and is used because it saves people the trouble of inventing an original phrase for themselves. In short, a cliché. Example: Achilles’ heel. Orwell suggests that writers scan their work for such dying forms that they have ‘seen regularly before in print’ and replace them with alternative language patterns.” (Wikipedia)

We need to say the things we need to say in ways that only we can say them.

Do you find yourself falling in with dying metaphors?  Flee them!  Even if you’re trying to be ironic.  These are the among the things that drive you crazy about bad writing, so make sure you keep earning your right to be bothered: excise all those dated, dying metaphors from your writing.

I understand.  It’s not like we use them on purpose. We all know better already.  But they are tenacious.  They are good ideas at 3 AM.  They are placeholders for better, truer thoughts and more honest and beautiful images.

What are some of the worst overused metaphors (or similes) you’ve come across?