When taking a stand involves sitting

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The most pervasive metaphor in English may be the use of "higher" to mean "better" (e.g., stronger or more moral), which has spawned endless figures of speech.  It's hard to avoid those metaphorical phrases, although that might be wise in situations in which "higher" also has a relevant physical meaning.  The New York Times on Saturday ran the following headline:

(1) As Trump Takes On Athletes, Watch Them Rise

Indeed, these athletes may be rising metaphorically as a political force.  But they're refusing to rise physically for the singing of the U.S. national anthem.  On the same day, the New York Times wrote (in this article, though it has now been edited away):

(2) Some people urged more players to kneel or sit during the anthem at football stadiums on Sunday as a way to reinforce their First Amendment rights. Others urged more white players to stand with black players who have knelt or sat during the anthem.

How confusing!  White players are urged to stand metaphorically with their black teammates … by physically kneeling or sitting with them, or by speaking out afterwards.

But how do we readers know that "stand with" in (2) is metaphorical?  Why couldn't the second sentence be about white players standing physically?

In fact, it's tempting to interpret (2) physically — "some people" encouraging kneeling while "others" are encouraging standing.  There are indeed Americans urging both actions.  But it's an implausible interpretation because of little clues like "more" and "with":

  • It happens that nearly all white players have continued to stand during the anthem.  So it would be strange to urge "more" of them to stand, rather than urging "the rest" to stand or asking "the few sitters" to "resume standing."
  • Physically standing "with" someone presumably means that you stand at the same time as them, or that you walk over and stand next to them.  Neither is likely here, since there seems to be no opportunity to carry out either move as a political gesture.  (At the relevant time, these black players presumably aren't planning to stand at all, and the white players are presumably already next to them.)

Thus, it's unlikely that the "others" are urging white players to physically stand by their kneeling or sitting teammates.   (If the white players did so, then they wouldn't be metaphorically "standing by" their teammates.  At best, they'd just be "standing by" as the controversy unfolded … a.k.a. sitting it out.)

One more, from Yahoo Sports (h/t Ben Zimmer):

(3) NFL shows it won't sink to president's level

The "sinking" is again metaphorical.  This time, the headline happens to be literally true as well: the president is presumably sitting as part of the TV audience, and the National Football League players are standing, not sinking physically to his level.  Yet again, no one who knows the context could think that the headline literally means "NFL shows it won't sit or kneel."  Why?

  • "Sink to the president's level" is too roundabout a way to say "sit or kneel."
  • "NFL shows it won't sit or kneel" isn't true: sitting and kneeling during the anthem are on the increase in the NFL.
  • "These NFLers show they won't sit or kneel" still wouldn't be plausible as a choice for this headline.  While the photo does show that they have decided not to go as far as kneeling, the newsworthy bit is that they are nonetheless protesting and their team's owner has joined them.

Getting computers to attend to all these factors, as we humans seem to, is why passing the Turing test will be hard.

Question for LL readers: What's a clever name for a metaphorical phrase whose literal interpretation is at odds with the facts?  (A "mixed metaphor" is a pair of metaphorical phrases whose literal interpretations are at odds with each other.)


  1. Jenny Chu said,

    September 25, 2017 @ 12:12 am

    Thank you for highlighting this! I read that entire piece this morning on the way to work and never once experienced any failure of understanding or even any temporary dissonance (no "What – haha! They're saying you should 'stand' with those who 'knelt'? Crazy!" or anything similar).

    It makes me think that there must be some fixed phrases involved: for example, while "sink to [someone's] level" is common enough, I don't think "kneel to [someone's] level" exists. Likewise, "rise to the occasion" vs the [I believe] nonexistent "stand up to the occasion"

  2. mike said,

    September 25, 2017 @ 12:39 am


  3. Kate Gladstone said,

    September 25, 2017 @ 12:51 am

    “What's a clever name for a metaphorical phrase whose literal interpretation is at odds with the facts?”

    /1/ a nixed metaphor
    /2/ a metagainst

  4. Haamu said,

    September 25, 2017 @ 1:29 am


  5. Haamu said,

    September 25, 2017 @ 1:35 am

    Apologies for "contraphor" — that's one of those Latin+Greek mishmashes, isn't it? I know that crosses a line. Still, there's something about contra- that seems more appropriate here than anti-.

  6. Haamu said,

    September 25, 2017 @ 1:46 am

    In an effort to make the expression metaphorical itself, I'll suggest capsized metaphor.

  7. Bev Rowe said,

    September 25, 2017 @ 4:37 am

    This post has echoes of the recent LL discussion of ambiguous noun phrases.

    Somewhere in the unconscious during the decoding of incoming texts there must be a a phase that sorts out the conflicts and ambiguities. When you hear a sentence starting “They must stand with …” both the material and the abstract interpretation must be hovering nearby. Yet consciously we are never delayed or hindered (unless we are language nerds). Comprehension is unbroken.

    This is a matter of great wonder.

    (How about metaflict?)

  8. unekdoud said,

    September 25, 2017 @ 5:12 am

    A wicked metaphor, or a sick metaphor, perhaps? Take the name literally and it's bad.

    I personally like the name "mismetaphor", as an echo of "mixed metaphor".

  9. philip said,

    September 25, 2017 @ 5:23 am


    (referencing the whole 'literally does not mean literally' discussion)


    (for displaying its wares in dodgy circumstances)

  10. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 25, 2017 @ 6:11 am

    Matt Yglesias comment:

    "Trump turning football into a political football is very challenging for the metaphor sector."

  11. Robert said,

    September 25, 2017 @ 8:06 am

    I wonder what Abbott and Costello would have done with this

  12. D.O. said,

    September 25, 2017 @ 8:20 am

    Don't have a clever suggestion for contradicting-the -literal-meaning metaphor, just want to remind that the usual source of them are actions of Rosa Park (and others, of course) who stood up by sitting.

  13. Hortense said,

    September 25, 2017 @ 8:29 am

    Oxymoronic metaphor

  14. Ellen K. said,

    September 25, 2017 @ 8:49 am

    I do recall a photo showing NFL players literally standing with their teammate who knelt during the national anthem, standing around him with their hands on his shoulders, so physically standing, but doing so in a way that showed they supported him. So it is possible to "stand with" the kneeling or sitting players while literally standing. (Though, no, I don't think that's what was meant.)

  15. John Roth said,

    September 25, 2017 @ 10:07 am

    There is apparently a brain region that handles metaphors. I ran across a reference some years ago to a study of several patients with brain damage to a specific area who literally couldn't understand certain metaphors. The key metaphor I remember was "all that glitters is not gold."

  16. Yuvlomov said,

    September 25, 2017 @ 10:08 am

    To capitalize on the confusing aspect, I'd suggest semiphor: phrase is interpreted half metaphorically and half literally.

    My first thought was also contraphor, as suggested above. I still like it too. Other options are antonymaphor (cumbersome?), antonyphor, metantophor, or metantonym.

  17. Karl Weber said,

    September 25, 2017 @ 11:53 am

    In working on anti-racist materials for a local community organization, I'd been using metaphors about "standing with" people of color and "standing up for" social justice until one of my colleagues mentioned that those expressions can be considered "ablist" in that they tacitly exclude people in wheelchairs, for example. So now I try to remember to use metaphors like "showing up for" social justice and "supporting" people of color instead.

  18. NSBK said,

    September 25, 2017 @ 1:00 pm

    How about "chimeraphor"?

  19. KevinM said,

    September 25, 2017 @ 1:49 pm

    TIme for people of good will to sit down and be counted!

  20. Vance Koven said,

    September 25, 2017 @ 2:22 pm

    Orchestral musicians also take a stand by sitting down.

  21. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 25, 2017 @ 4:58 pm

    If you don't insist on clever, there's "incongruous metaphor".

    Personally, I never metaphor I didn't like.

  22. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 25, 2017 @ 5:12 pm

    While I'm at it, these seem to be a subclass of what used to be called bulls or Irish bulls. They seem to be a higher percentage of Goldwyn-isms than Berra-isms.

  23. Mara K said,

    September 25, 2017 @ 6:18 pm

    How about malaphor, to go with malamanteaus?

  24. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 25, 2017 @ 7:05 pm

    There's a separate complication here (that may spill over into the metaphors) of the blurry distinction between action and inaction and/or what's the default/unmarked versus marked option in the situation. The players here (the ones certain politicians are upset about) aren't "refusing to rise" — that's more the situation of any sympathetic fans in the stands who were already sitting down but are conventionally expected to stand up for the anthem. When you walk out onto a football field you are already standing and by default will remain that way unless you take some action to change that. Thus variants of "take a knee" are trending on social media etc in order to provide a positive (and active) characterization for what the players in question are doing, perhaps ironically so given that the core football sense of taking a knee (the quarterback deliberately doing so in order to run out the clock at the end of the game and protect a lead w/o risk of fumbling or otherwise worsening the situation) is probably the single least heroic conventionally-acceptable thing a football player can do while in uniform. Inaction/stasis/continuity-of-the-status-quo can of course be heroic in the right circumstances (it's what Rosa Parks did – her seat on the bus had been a conventionally okay one for black passengers at the time she sat down in it; she just refused to move when the driver reclassified that seat partway through her trip), but it's not what's going on here.

  25. Chas Belov said,

    September 26, 2017 @ 3:48 am

    "all that glitters is not gold" has always bothered me. Wouldn't it correctly be "not all that glitters is gold"?

  26. philip said,

    September 26, 2017 @ 3:56 am

    glisters, glisters, glisters.

    The phrase is: all that glisters is not gold. As for the placement of the 'not', Chas, it is an idiomatic phrase now so we cannot go around re-arranging it

  27. Rodger C said,

    September 26, 2017 @ 6:57 am

    it is an idiomatic phrase now so we cannot go around re-arranging it

    Not to mention a direct quote, and in meter. But I wonder if the brain-damaged patients John Roth mentions weren't defeated by the syntax rather than the metaphor.

  28. ajay said,

    September 26, 2017 @ 8:40 am

    Rearranged to Chas' satisfaction, in Gray's "Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes":

    From hence, ye beauties, undeceived,
    Know, one false step is ne'er retrieved,
    And be with caution bold.
    Not all that tempts your wandering eyes
    And heedless hearts is lawful prize,
    Nor all, that glisters, gold.

  29. wohz said,

    September 26, 2017 @ 3:44 pm

    Late to this thread, and no terminological suggestions, but this also reminds me of Beckett, in Murphy (chapter 7):

    "[…] Cooper never sat, his acathisia was deep-seated and of long standing."

    (Acathisia is, according to Wikipedia, "a movement disorder characterized by a feeling of inner restlessness and a compelling need to be in constant motion", although Beckett has Cooper both standing and lying, just not sitting.)

  30. Chas Belov said,

    October 3, 2017 @ 2:54 pm

    @ajay: Thank you for leading me to that delightful, if tragic, poem.

    @phillip : I am not obligated to cast the phrase in amber. Language changes, including so-called "set" phrases.* Evidently the phrase is not so fixed that Gray couldn't change Shakespeare's "glitters" (from The Merchant of Venice) to "glisters."

    * I wasn't able to find a phrase that changed in wording but "a close shave" apparently used to mean "miserly" so it's safe to say that phrases do change.

  31. Chas Belov said,

    October 3, 2017 @ 4:10 pm

    Hmm, Wikipedia claims Shakespeare used "glisters" while MIT uses "glitters."

    And that said, Chaucer fronts the "not" as I suggest.

  32. Chas Belov said,

    October 3, 2017 @ 4:20 pm

    Actually, this discussion of "all that glitters is not gold" versus "not all that glitters is gold" comes up a lot, and others have taken the latter path.

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