Beating back those Gordian Hurdles

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In addition to everything else that's gone wrong, the McCain campaign is suffering from out-of-control metaphors. According to Adam Nagourney and Elizabeth Bumiller, "Concern in G.O.P. After Rough Week for McCain", NYT, 10/11/2008:

“My sense of where things are: John McCain beat back what was a political climate that would have snuffed out any other candidate in the Republican Party,” said Nicolle Wallace, a senior adviser. “He’s beat back every hurdle that was ever placed in front of him.”

Beating back a climate is a step on the way to commanding the tides of the sea to go back, it seems to me. And a competitor who deals with hurdles by beating them back is unlikely to win the race.


  1. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    October 12, 2008 @ 1:31 pm

    Metaphors are the glue that hold together the gears of our language. And they can be hard to master; one moment you're riding the wave, and the next, somebody's pulled the plug out from under you.

  2. The Owners Manual said,

    October 12, 2008 @ 2:05 pm

    Here's one I'm still trying to figure out.

    "The economy does hang from their necks like the anchor from the Lusitania," [David] Axelrod said."

  3. James C. said,

    October 12, 2008 @ 2:20 pm

    In the immortal words of Opus, “you can lead a yak to water, but you can’t make a silk purse out of a pig in a poke”.

  4. Beijing Sounds said,

    October 12, 2008 @ 2:40 pm

    I enjoy a stiff mixed metaphor as much as the next joe six-pac, but isn't this most likely a case where the metaphor is metamorphosing into a plain old word? If you read "overcome" for "beat back" and maybe "barrier" for "hurdle," well, it's still not poetry but it kinda works. If someone wrote it, it'd be pretty ugly, but in the heat of a conversation, I'll argue that only the snarkiest would notice the mixed metaphors.

    If I'm right, you're guilty of making a tempest in a teapot out of the cutting edge of language change.

  5. Matt Shafer said,

    October 12, 2008 @ 2:58 pm

    Mixing metaphors is like trying to bake a casserole but finding out that it takes more than one color to paint a rainbow.

  6. Kodos said,

    October 12, 2008 @ 3:09 pm

    It's time to stop Palin' around and go back to working on America's future. We must move forward, not backward, upward, not forward and always twirling. Twirling towards freedom…

  7. Nathan said,

    October 12, 2008 @ 3:12 pm

    Actually, that's "…you can't teach an old dog to make a silk purse out of a pig in a poke."

  8. Artur said,

    October 12, 2008 @ 3:24 pm

    Ah, but can you put lipstick on the pig?

  9. rootlesscosmo said,

    October 12, 2008 @ 3:56 pm

    The following actually appeared in a letter to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle a few years ago:

    With the clock running on venture capital financing fumes, the fire is hot under the designer duds for these image-makers to roll the dice with the biggest chunk of capital on the tricky task of market packaging before the cash evaporates.

    This actually sort of makes sense, but the metaphor density is disturbingly high.

  10. James Wimberley said,

    October 12, 2008 @ 5:09 pm

    Canute's stunt has given him a bad press. As the linked account makes clear, it was the rebuke of a level-headed man to flattering courtiers. Cf. Potemkin village.

  11. Ann said,

    October 12, 2008 @ 5:50 pm

    I wonder if one of the linguists present can grab the bull by its horns and spread some light on this issue for me?

    Are second-language speakers of English more likely to mix their metaphors? Are mixed metaphors more acceptable in some types of English than others?

    Is it as unnecessarily prescriptivist to point out mixed metaphors as it is to point out unimportant mistakes in punctuation?

  12. Clayton Burns said,

    October 12, 2008 @ 6:53 pm

    Ann, You are on the case. Here is one for you, and for the best Linguistics blog in the world, Language Log: the conditional question that caused the undying bonfire of uproar in the Canadian election now coming to a close.

    "If you were a man now–right now–would you have eaten the snake to prevent it from tempting Eve in the garden of Eden if you had known that it was actually Lucifer with his long tail?"

    Columbia Journalism Review has a wonderful blog entry–at–on this most subtle of questions. It is always metaphoric when they frig in such a way with conditions.

    If you solve this one for me, I'm going to be grateful for days, as long as I can remember the question.

    That ATV anchor Murphy asked Liberal leader Dion what he would have done about the economy if he were Prime Minister now has paralyzed the Canadian federal election campaign. Unless you solve it (metaphorically), nothing can continue. Ever.

  13. dr pepper said,

    October 12, 2008 @ 8:05 pm

    Trying to fathom such statements is like taking arms against a sea of troubles.

  14. Kevin Iga said,

    October 13, 2008 @ 12:33 am

    There's another quote in that article which is not quite as metaphorical, but I think it violates the projection principle, or the theta criterion, or something:

    “I don’t think he should be giving into elements of the base who have been asking him to be going after, using Wright, using Ayers,” Mr. Cullen said. “Think about it as an undecided persuadable voter.”

    Am I misreading this, or should it read, "…asking him to be going after him, using Wright…"? (i.e. after Obama, an NP that is not otherwise found in this sentence.) The "who" seems to throw me off a bit, since it sounds like it could be the antecedent for a Wh-movement from after "after", but that can't work because it's already wh-moved from the subject position of the clause.

  15. Andrew said,

    October 13, 2008 @ 5:36 am

    I'd read the going after as connected to Wright and Ayers – with the speaker either meaning that the base had been asking McCain to go after [b]and[/b] use Wright and Ayers, or corrected himself from "going after", since getting people outraged at Wright and Ayers is only part of using Wright and Ayers to get people outraged at Obama

  16. Carl said,

    October 13, 2008 @ 6:26 am

    Surely this is a case of taking up arms against a sea, no?

  17. Chris said,

    October 13, 2008 @ 9:32 am

    Mixed metaphors aren't always bad – two people have already pointed out Shakespeare's. But Shakespeare mixed that metaphor *deliberately* – taking up arms against the sea is just as futile as commanding it to retreat, which is the point.

    While, as Mark points out, beating back hurdles *is* possible, it won't help you win the race, so it probably isn't what a McCain staffer would have meant. (Unless it was a secret admission of despair – McCain can't clear hurdles because he's so confrontational he has to beat them back. This may even be true, but it'd be surprising to hear the McCain campaign say it.)

    So if you're going to mix metaphors, you should do it carefully, or you may be hoist by your own petard.

  18. Will Dowling said,

    October 13, 2008 @ 11:39 am

    Oh I love a good mixed metaphor. It the mixed *clichés* that I find particularly annoying.

  19. Dave said,

    October 13, 2008 @ 8:18 pm

    I think this whole topic opens up a Pandora's box full of Trojan horses.

  20. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    October 13, 2008 @ 10:14 pm

    It opens up a whole other barrel of monkeys.

  21. Rubrick said,

    October 14, 2008 @ 3:39 am

    Back during the primaries, an NPR commentator, discussing whether the DNC would seat the Michigan and Florida delegates, said "We'll see what they're going to do, now that the tea leaves, if you will, have come home to roost."

  22. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    October 14, 2008 @ 9:33 am

    I owe the "glue holding together the gears" in my first comment to the Simpsons. Another Simpson's quote I'm reminded of is:

    "Would Willie [Nelson]'s fence-mending eggs bear fruit? Or would his olive branch of peace be torn apart by woodpeckers of mistrust?"

  23. Joe said,

    October 14, 2008 @ 3:18 pm

    I can't believe how ridiculous this is all getting. Everyone knows that you should CUT the Gordian Hurdles!

  24. G.L. Dryfoos said,

    October 16, 2008 @ 7:40 pm

    "A man's concepts should exceed his vocabulary, or what's a metaphor?"
    — Plato Schrimp

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