Last month, I heard a story from NPR's On the Media about the power of metaphor. Researchers at Stanford wanted to see just how powerful metaphors were at framing experience, and so they set out to test it. They took two groups of people, and asked them to discuss the problem of crime in the fictional city of Addison. One group was told that crime was a beast ravaging the city of Addison. The other group was told that crime was a virus ravaging the city. Then they asked participants to say what they thought should be done about the problem.
They found that people given the beast metaphor were more likely to suggest more police enforcement, more jails. The people with the virus metaphor suggested more social reform, better schools, and so on.
Studies like this always make me wonder, are our minds really that weak? Really that mailable? Were I a study participant, would I be so easily swayed? I use similes and metaphors a lot to get my point across; now I wonder if I'm even more effective at it than I think I am.
The thing about metaphors is that they help our minds wrap around an abstract concept. Like once, I asked my husband the difference between RAM and ROM. He told me that ROM was like a library and RAM was like a librarian who goes and finds you books. That is how I will always remember it. We teach kids to tie their shoes by telling them that the bunny goes around the tree (or some nonsense like that, I remember being utterly confused and then going back to Velcro).
In Vivian Cook's book All in a Word, she points out that we use metaphors even more often than we think we do. When we're happy, our spirits are up, and when we're sad, our hearts sink. Tom Waits is Big in Japan, and when I get mad, I throw a fit (and I do. It's a sight to behold. You do not want to be on the receiving end of that mess). We eat square meals and try to get square deals and when we win, we swear we did it fair and square. Bodybuilders have guns, I've got muffin tops, and J Lo has a lot of junk in her trunk.
Some of my favorite metaphors:
In Twelfth Night, Feste says the following to Orsino:
Now, the melancholy god protect thee; and the
tailor make thy doublet of changeable taffeta, for
thy mind is a very opal.
He's slyly calling Orsino fickle. As a side note, my Acting Shakespeare prof was always fond of pointing out that jesters used to carry mirrors around and hold them up to the faces of the people they were entertaining. Another type of metaphor.
In the last line of Last Thoughts on Woodie Guthrie, maybe my favorite poem ever, Bob Dylan talks of looking for hope, and he says:
And it ain't in the marshmallow noises of the chocolate cake voices
That come knockin' and tappin' in Christmas wrappin'
Sayin' ain't I pretty and ain't I cute and look at my skin
Look at my skin shine, look at my skin glow
Look at my skin laugh, look at my skin cry
When you can't even sense if they got any insides
These people so pretty in their ribbons and bows
Garfunkel and Oats use these similes One Night Stand
I'm like Fred Flintstone; I make your bed rock
you're like a parking ticket, so fine
Jean Claude van Daaammn, you're sexy
Let's get horizontal and combine
And of course, Atticus Finch tells us it's a sin to kill a mockingbird. Because all mockingbirds do is make beautiful music for people.
These are fireworks.
Edit: One of my favorite quotes from any movie ever was Jack Nicholson in As Good as it Gets: "People who speak in metaphors oughta shampoo my crotch."
He can say that. He's the man.