Kevin Drum recently laid out a long-standing unsolved problem, one that has preoccupied such luminaries as Paul Krugman, James Fallows, and Glenn Beck ("Saving the Frogs", Mother Jones, 9/23/2009). The problem is that there's no good substitute for the over-used and untrue story about how a frog, if placed in a pot of gradually heated water, will eventually allow itself to be boiled without jumping out. And since this is a rhetorical problem, Drum describes the failure as a linguistic one:
So here's what I'm interested in. The boiling frog cliche is untrue. But it stays alive because, as Krugman says, it's a useful metaphor. So why aren't there any good substitutes?
This is very strange. Most useful adages and metaphors not only have substitutes, they have multiple substitutes. "Look before you leap" and "Curiosity killed the cat." "Fast as lightning" and "Faster than a speeding bullet." Etc. Usually you have lots of choices.
But in this case we don't seem to have a single one aside from the boiling frog. Why? Is it because it's not really all that useful a metaphor after all? Because the frog has ruthlessly killed off every competitor? Because it's not actually true in any circumstance, let alone with frogs in pots of water? What accounts for this linguistic failure?
Yesterday, Jonathan Lundell sent me a link to Drum's article, with the comment "Sounds like a job for Language Log". That was almost enough to make me move on immediately: when Geoff Pullum and I started Language Log, I promised myself that if it ever got to feel like a job, I'd quit.
But this morning, after half a cup of coffee, I realized that Jonathan's remark was just an instance of the conventionalized phrasal template "sounds like a job for ___". And this one usually refers to the super-activities of superheros, which are by definition superfluous to their day jobs.
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