Convention, uniqueness, and truth

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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.

Thus this Non Sequitur strip from 8/23/2009:

So let me start by noting that the frog-boiling business is a very different kind of cliche from the other ones that Drum cites. "Look before you leap", "curiosity killed the cat", etc., are fixed phrases, involving not only a conventionalized metaphor but also a specific string of words. The frog story has no standard linguistic form — it's a conventionalized metaphorical narrative, not a conventionalized metaphorical phrase.

In that respect, it's like the original snowclone, which involves explaining that since the Eskimos have some large number of words for snow, so the members of some other group must have even more words for some substance, activity or concept believed to be typical of them. You can explain that in any words that you like, and it still works as a rhetorical gesture, as long as your audience doesn't object to the fact that its premise is untrue.

And as far as I know, there isn't really any suitable overall substitute for this linguistic abuse of Eskimos. The 18th-century version about Arabs and lions is extinct, and my suggestion about Somalis and camels has never caught on. Similarly, I can't think of any substitute for the false story about the Chinese characters for "crisis".

So there you are: perhaps it's a rhetorical generalization that conventionalized metaphorical narratives are both false and unsubstitutable. This would follow from a couple of facts: people like to embellish stories to improve their fit to particular rhetorical circumstances, and rhetorical value is uncorrelated with truth (or perhaps negatively correlated).   Based on those premises, you can show that Really Useful Stories will almost always be false, and also that Really Useful Stories will be the end point of a process of invention and memetic selection that's not easy to equal by mere intelligent design.

So what about substitutes for the frog-boiling narrative? Am I going to undermine my point by offering some?

Yes, sort of. There's the Niemöller "first they came" passage; but this is specific to the gradual spread of tyranny, and yet is unlikely to appeal to Glenn Beck, who appears to be the only pundit who has actually boiled a frog on television. There's the introduction of wide-band noise in Tinnitus retraining therapy, which must be gradual and carefully calibrated so as to avoid triggering aversive limbic responses. This is (I think) a valid instance of the false "frogs won't get upset if increases in water temperature are gradual" concept; but it's too complicated, and the result of gradual stimulus increase is good rather than bad, and anyhow curing people of annoying imaginary sounds doesn't have the emotional impact of boiling frogs. See?


  1. Blake Stacey said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 8:55 am

    Hmmm, a conventionalized metaphorical narrative about small changes going unnoticed. . . There was the Greek weightlifter Milo of Croton, said to have started lifting a newborn calf every day and ended up carrying a full-grown bull. But as with the Tinnitus retraining therapy, the outcome of the gradual stimulus increase was good (becoming a six-time Olympic champion).

  2. mark said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 8:56 am

    not identical but related: rats that will push the bar for X (cocaine, sugar, etc.) until they're dead.

  3. Mary Ellen Foster said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 9:03 am

    One semi-similar image to the frog-boiling one is "Salami tactics", which I think I first heard about on Yes, Prime Minister years ago.

  4. CS Clark said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 9:03 am

    How about 'death of a thousand cuts'? The wikipedia page on creeping normalcy – – has a few other substitutes but I'm not sure they all fit the same purpose (and in the case of Jared Diamond's Easter Island story I'm not sure if it's true). I did also wonder about 'mony a mickle maks a muckle', but I suppose that's not normally used negatively.

  5. Liam said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 9:07 am

    How many words do the Somalis have for the camel whose back is broken through the gradual application of straw?

  6. Grep Agni said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 9:22 am

    "The straw that broke the camel's back?"

  7. Grep Agni said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 9:23 am

    Apparently I should refresh comments before adding one.

  8. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 9:29 am

    In certain situations in which one might use the boiled frog metaphor, the classical quote "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing" might be a good substitute. This speaks to the idea of leaving the frog in the pot, though, and not of the gradual addition of stimuli.

    I think Liam's right: The straw that broke the camel's back seems like the closest common metaphor.

  9. Ellen said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 9:54 am

    "The straw that broke the camel's back" focuses on that last straw. Liam's wording does better get at the idea of adding gradually, but it's also a distinct rewording of the normal phrase.

  10. Ray Girvan said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 10:50 am

    Milo of Croton

    A somewhat recycled meme. Lisa St Aubin de Terán used it in The Tiger (1984), as did Louis Sachar in Holes (1998), in which Elya Yelnats is given the task of carrying a small pig up a mountain every day to drink from a special stream.

  11. John Walden said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 10:52 am

    How about "slow poison" and "killing me/it softly"? Not quite the same though.

    And on the other matter there is the expression: "The French have a word for it" for when you are grasping for "le mot juste", especially one connected with thoughts, feelings, art and other not so Anglo-Saxon pursuits. It does represent the belief that other languages are better equipped for certain purposes.

    Although what's wrong with "the right word" escapes me.

  12. Isseki Nicho said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 10:52 am

    As a substitute for frog-boiling I like Max Frisch's firebugs narrative: a man's new tenants regularly bring in (in)flammable materials and although there have been numerous recent cases of arson in the town, he ends up giving the arsonists a match and of course they burn down his house.

  13. David Smith said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 11:12 am

    We shouldn't be trying to save this story. It is bad politics. The moral of the story isn't just that small incremental changes can eventually lead to big bad changes, it's that the masses are too stupid to recognize that X shift in policy, no matter how innocuous it seems, is going to lead to catastrophe. It elevates whoever tells the tale into a wise prophet who is somehow immune to the common foolishness, and whoever believes him into a member of the elect who is laughed at and persecuted now but will one day be revered for anticipating the disaster. As far as political proverbs go it is about as cheap and self-serving as it gets. The fact that it isn't true tells us something important, i.e. that people (and frogs) are not as stupid as all that, and don't need some demagogue to save them from themselves.

  14. Ray Girvan said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 11:17 am

    Forget to mention: there's a similar meme about boiling a lobster.

    "If you throw a lobster into boiling water, they say, it will immediately try to get out. But if you start with cold water and gradually increase the temperature, the lobster fails to detect the incremental change before it is cooked." This is what's happening to the American family.
    Democratic Underground

    Hairabdiant warns, “The adversary gradually lulls people into spiritual darkness much like a master chef cooks a lobster, beginning in cold water and slowly increasing the heat to the boiling point.”
    – Former Leavenworth penitentiary inmate takes journey from sinner to anointed servant in Kansas City,

  15. Chelsea said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 11:35 am

    In college I told the story of the left-out laundry detergent: If you leave your laundry detergent in the laundry room, everyone who forgot their own will take a cup, because a missing cup's worth isn't noticeable in comparison to the whole. But when the owner of the detergent returns the next week, after thirty people have helped themselves to "just a cup," they will find their bottle empty. The moral of the story is that lots of small innocuous changes can lead to a bad result, and that someone has to watch the bottle (or people have to learn to respect the bottle and "watch" it themselves). The frog in the story isn't smart enough to figure out that he's being boiled, whereas the observer is. The proverb encourages you to be the observer and not the frog.

    Unfortunately my story hasn't reached proverb status :), but it shares several aspects with the boiled frog story—that your temporal perspective (long- vs. short-term perspective; knowledge of vs. ignorance of the past) makes a lot of difference to your evaluation of a change. Perhaps "those who forget history are doomed to repeat it" is a cousin sentiment?

  16. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 11:39 am

    How about Marge Simpson's "Fox turned into a hardcore sex channel so gradually I didn't even notice"? (The internet has slight differences in wording; I have not attempted to verify which is original. If you google "turned into" and "so gradually" you'll see some snowclone adaptations.)

  17. Dierk said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 11:47 am

    Isn't the frog story essentially a 'step-by-step' narrative with teh focus on the bad result.

  18. Liz said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 11:52 am

    for the step-by-step disaster, what about the camel's nose into the tent? You let the camel get her nose in and pretty soon you've got a tent full of camel and you're sleeping outside.

  19. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 11:56 am

    There's a bunch of suggestions for conceptually-similar notions here, including both boiling frog and camel's nose:

  20. A.S. said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 12:39 pm

    Like CS Clark says, Jared Diamond's "Collapse" includes one example after the other of "creeping normalcy", so even if the Easter Island story isn't true, there are plenty of other stories to choose from. Who needs a frog in boiling water, when we have one human civilization after the other destroying their environment and using up their resources so gradually that they only notice when it's too late? And we don't really need to look to past civilizations — look at the way we're using up oil, depleting our oceans and allowing linguistic diversity to decrease by one language per week.

  21. Jim said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 12:50 pm

    " I can't think of any substitute for the false story about the Chinese characters for "crisis"."

    How about the sophomoric twaddle about the capitalization of the first person pronoun in English as a manifestation of Anglo-Saxon individualism that used to be fashionable about 50 years ago?

  22. mollymooly said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

    Comments so far seem to indicate that there are plenty of existing ways to express identical or similar ideas; but none occupies quite the same pigeonhole of "conventionalised metaphorical narrative". Some like "thin end of the wedge" are simpler clichés or idioms; others are specifically cultural allusions, whether classical like Milo of Croton or popular like The Simpsons –I had thought of that one too!

    I offer "Sorites trap" as a addition to the pile.

    The Boiling Frog seems to be at a cusp where a story is common enough that most people come to be familiar with it, but rare enough that hack journalists and teachers can recount it and feel they are imparting wisdom rather than platitude.

  23. Doc Hopper’s Boiling Frog Metaphor And How It Irritates James Fallows « Around The Sphere said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 1:13 pm

    […] UPDATE #3: Language Log […]

  24. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

    Wait a minute. How does this story fit with Prof. Liberman's ongoing campaign against essentialism and misleading generic expressions? There are supposedly something like 5,000+ different species of frogs. Has the boiling hypothesis really been experimentally tried and found false with a statistically meaningful sample of frogs from each and every one of those species? Obviously if it's true of some species — or at least "typically" or "characteristically" true when you graph out the number of frogs of that species which got boiled v. the number that jumped out — but not of others you'd have to modify the conv. metaph. narr. to be about a Such-and-Such frog if you wanted it to be true as well as instructive, but that would seem doable. Something on the order of "There's a certain type of frog found in Madagascar, which . . ." would seem to be perfectly serviceable for conv. metaph. narr. purposes.

  25. Martha said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 2:17 pm

    Chelsea, I lived that college story, only with a box of tampons left in the bathroom, and I'm still miffed at whoever took the last one. (I suppose my story won't achieve proverb status either.)

  26. Sili said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 2:20 pm

    I vaguely reminded of the Overton Window, but I suspect that the OW is most easily explained in terms of boiling frogs.

    There's a Danish version of the straw that broke the camel's back/left-out detergent: A farmer's collecting stones in the field, saying to the horse even after the wagon's full "If you can take that, you can take one more". Eventually he tries to drive home, and of course the horse can't budge. He then starts throwing the stones out "If you can't pull that, you can't pull this one either". So in the end he drives home with an empty wagon.

    Not that that works, though.

    Perhaps references to how drops of water carves out holes in stones?

  27. rpsms said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 2:43 pm

    Slippery Slope

  28. Ginger Yellow said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 2:49 pm

    We could come up with a new one, such as: "A cdesign proponentist doesn't realise evolution is happening until millions of years after a speciation event."

  29. TC said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 4:30 pm

    If I may suggest a substitute for Eskimos and their snow:

    (Blood-thirsty) Romans and "kill". Latin does, in fact, have quite a few words for kill/murder/slaughter. And given that the Romans are most known for their wars and their gladiators, it is a recognizable enough metaphor.

  30. sleepnothavingness said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 6:32 pm

    Softly, softly, catchee monkey


    Caught asleep at the switch?

    Depending on your perspective, I guess.

  31. Gavin said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 10:25 pm

    I think it was from Barack Obama that I first heard, "Where there is crisis, there is also opportunity", which I feel is an appropriate substitute for actually accusing the Chinese of having anything to do with it.

  32. John Baker said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 11:22 pm

    In practice, the boiling frog story is essentially equivalent to the story of the ostrich, which sticks its head in the sand rather than confronting or avoiding danger. That story is untrue too, of course, and ostriches in reality are strikingly good at both confronting danger and running away from it. But perhaps its obvious falseness makes it less problematic.

  33. weaver said,

    September 25, 2009 @ 12:22 am

    I was going to belatedly suggest that the aphorism should be retired as much because it is metaphorically false as because it is literally false, but David Smith beat me to it.

    And surely there's more to this false story than the idea of the thin end of a wedge. It's about acclimatisation and the weird notion that being able to adjust to greater discomfort makes you less able to detect when the situation has become, or may become in the future, completely untenable.

  34. dr pepper said,

    September 25, 2009 @ 12:40 am

    If you gradually drop snow on an eskimo, they'll just sit there naming it until they suffocate.

  35. Franz Bebeop said,

    September 25, 2009 @ 10:12 am

    The boiling frog metaphor involves the frog getting cooked, and stupidly. That's the part of the story that's hard to replace. I think that's what David Smith was getting at.

    The camel's nose story has a similar lesson, but in that story, the camel is clever, and kind of cute. You wouldn't mind being that camel, but you don't want to be that frog.

    (By the way, it's worth asking: Do camel's actually stick their noses under tents, in the hope of working their entire bodies in, eventually? I suspect not.)

    I don't think the boiling frog tale will go away. It may not reflect the behavior of real frogs, but that hardly matters. There are a lots of other great metaphorical moral tales that don't reflect reality: the tortoise and the hare, the fox and the crow.

    Nobody mentioned this comic, so I will:

  36. mollymooly said,

    September 25, 2009 @ 11:29 am

    "There are a lots of other great metaphorical moral tales that don't reflect reality: the tortoise and the hare, the fox and the crow."

    So let's pretend Aesop told a fable about Androcles Boiling the Frog, and refer to that.

  37. Isseki Nicho said,

    September 25, 2009 @ 11:32 am

    It may be true after all if the frogs are decerebrated:
    (This link just showed up on Twitter; maybe the writer, in Tokyo, reads Language Log.)

    The Danish story of the farmer piling more and more stones on the horse wagon reminds me of the Monty Python "wafer-thin" mint sketch.

  38. Dmajor said,

    September 25, 2009 @ 3:05 pm

    How about the usual recipe for Tofu-Loach Surprise?

    You start with a cold block of tofu in a saucepan of cold water and add some happy swimming little loaches. Then you put the pan on a low simmer. As the water heats, the loaches burrow deeper and deeper into the tofu in order to avoid the heat. Eventually you take out the cooked block of tofu and slice it at the table. Each slice reveals the cross sections of trapped loaches.

    Of course, there never really was a way for them to hop out and truly escape, as there was for your hypothetical frog. But it is another form of an ineffective response to increasing heat, as well as entertaining, possibly true, and certainly more palatable than a boiled frog.

  39. KRS said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

    The Milo of Croton story was picked up word for word in a Paul Bunyan book I read as a child. Paul carried Babe the Blue Ox around as both of them grew.

  40. dr pepper said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 4:37 am

    According to a documentary i saw, Paul Bunyan is not authentic folklore. He was basically the timber industry's equivalent of the Jolly Green Giant. He started as a logo stamped on the loads, then very early in the 1900s, an advertising agency was assigned the task of creating some stories about him.

    If that's so, it would make sense for the copywriter to grab some existing material.

  41. John Burgess said,

    September 29, 2009 @ 4:46 pm

    When will the story of the 'scorpion and the frog' be tackled? Equally non-naturalistic, but with an abiding morale and usually an ethnic smear.

  42. Karen said,

    September 29, 2009 @ 11:05 pm

    A friend has a favorite story about the man in the shtetl who says "Rabbi, my house is too small for my large family, we don't know what to do." Rabbi says: "invite your wife's parents to move in." Man doesn't understand, but does it. Goes back to the Rabbi, says "It's even worse…" is told "Now invite your parents to move in." It gets even worse, the Rabbi finally says "Now bring your goat into the house from the barn." Things are unbearable. Rabbi says "Now get rid of the goat." "Oh rabbi, you wouldn't believe the difference, it's wonderful, there is so much room, it's so quiet."

    "Now get rid of the goat" is a common reply these days, in my corner of the world. Think it could work in the wider world? (Seven google hits for the quoted phrase just now.)

  43. Leonardo Boiko said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 1:43 pm

    I’ve seen the “first they came” snowclone applied to wikipedia deletionists: “First they came for the List of Fictional Characters Wearing Fingerless Gloves, but I said nothing, for I was not a fictional character wearing fingerless gloves…”

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