Metaphor of the week

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William J. Broad, "Doubts Raised on Book's Tale of Atom Bomb", NYT 2/20/2010, discusses a minor scandal of historical documentation: the descriptions of a claimed "secret accident with the [Hiroshima] atom bomb", revealed in a recent non-fiction best-seller, turn out to have been based on lies and fabrications.

That part didn't especially surprise me, but this quotation brought me up short:

“This book is a Toyota,” said Robert S. Norris, the author of “Racing for the Bomb” and an atomic historian. “The publisher should recall it, issue an apology and fix the parts that endanger the historical record.”

I still haven't erased my mental association between Toyota and concepts like "fanatical devotion to quality control", despite the recent bad news about sticking accelerators and malfunctioning brakes. But when mild-mannered atomic historians start using your brand as a metaphor for sloppy and dangerous production errors, you've clearly got trouble.


  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 11:46 am

    It may have declined in recent decades, but "Edsel" had a pretty good run in AmE as a general metaphor for serious corporate blunders (albeit perhaps of a non-safety-endangering variety), but it was obviously good for the company that the metaphor used was the name of the specific, and abandoned, model, rather than just "Ford."

  2. John said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    I had the same reaction, but I figured the guy owned stock in GM. :-)

  3. Levi Montgomery said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

    I can't help but wonder if this is, indeed, the "metaphor of the week." Or at least of the month. Online in just the past month, I've seen similar references to both Ford and GM, referring to safety recalls in a metaphorical sense, and I'm currently reading a novel written in 1993 that makes the same reference to Audi.

    I suspect it might simply be the latest in a long string of recalls, popping up in an author's head in answer to an on-the-fly call for a metaphor for poor construction, rather than any meaningful reference to the brand that ends up answering the call.


  4. Rob said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

    I think I recall Pinto (another Ford) being used in this sense as well in the 1980s–after the 1970s and early 80s allegations of poor rear end design leading to fires in rear collisions.

  5. George said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 12:59 pm

    Cadillac at one time was the metaphor for 'top of line.'

  6. Aaron said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 2:45 pm

    Ha, great observation.

    Though arguably it's better when it's errors or production failures that make something dangerous. More troubling to me is the section two paragraphs above:

    Mr. Fuoco’s assertions, however, have upset the Los Alamos weapons laboratory in New Mexico, the birthplace of the bomb. It says the device suffered no accident and no technical failures. Its initial blast killed an estimated 70,000 people.

    Wow. "Hey, don't demean us or our workmanship! We did everything according to the highest standards, and killed 70,000 people!"

  7. mollymooly said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 4:26 pm

    There's a Japan v America element in both the topic of the book and the source of the metaphor, but it doesn't seem to form part of the semantic mapping.

  8. Jonathan Badger said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 4:42 pm

    Actually, the "Cadillac" metaphor is still current, at least in Mexican restaurants in California. Quite often one sees on the menu a normal margarita, made with cheap tequila, and a "Cadillac Margarita" made with tequila of higher quality.

  9. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 4:53 pm

    I discussed the "Cadillac" metaphor at length in the New York Times Magazine last November, with follow-ups on Language Log and Word Routes.

  10. Will said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 6:10 pm

    In Super/System Doyle Brunson called No Limit Hold'em the "Cadillac of poker".

  11. Bob Ladd said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 6:47 pm

    Reminds me of President Ford's modest self-assessment when Nixon's resignation catapulted him into the White House – "I'm a Ford, not a Lincoln". Nice piece of speech writing, whoever thought it up.

  12. Jason Cullen said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 10:01 pm

    I'm surprised that nobody has mentioned that staple of cultural anthropology textbooks the Nova! (The No Go!)

    [(myl) Perhaps because it's an Urban Legend, like most of the pop-anthro "facts" in marketing texts.]

  13. Ginger Yellow said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 6:38 am

    "In Super/System Doyle Brunson called No Limit Hold'em the "Cadillac of poker"."

    The book was written 30 years ago.

  14. Will said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 11:41 am

    @Ginger, yeah I should have made that clear. I was not trying to give an example of contemporary usage, but rather to support George's assertion that it was once a metaphor for "Top of the Line".

  15. JimG said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 2:19 pm

    @Jonathan Badger: A Cadillac Margarita, which is made with a measure of Grand Marnier added to the usual fixin's, will certainly be more expensive and intoxicating than a Margarita made with just plain José. I order mine, "rocks, no salt."
    A cocktail not much favored these days, the Gold Cadillac, was made of scotch whiskey and milk, and was reputed to be soothing to stomach ulcers.

  16. Nathan Myers said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 6:38 pm

    Metaphorical presidents seem very lightly used. The only ones that come to mind are "I'd be another Lincoln / if I only had a brain", which seems mainly a desperate grab for a rhyme, the anatomical "Johnson", and various currency references (Lincoln=5 etc.). While historians largely agree that Bush's presidency was the worst in living memory (some continue to reserve that distinction for Harding), the name has not in my experience been used much to refer to any sort of unmitigated disaster, not even a disaster that still find apologists.

  17. Dan Bloom said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 9:03 pm

    Did you notice "a Toyota" can be spelled backwards and come out the same?

    I've written extensively on my blog above (click my name) about backwards phenoms in language, from Oprah's Harpo productions to Frank Sinatra signing his oil paints with nom de plume "Artanis" and over 100 other examples. There is book here, if someone wants to write it. Just sign me, Leinad Moolb

  18. MIchael C. Dunn said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 10:52 pm

    Re: the Edsel precedent. Perhaps "a Toyota" is becoming the new "New Coke."

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