(I’m going through some of my old, unfinished drafts and either finishing or discarding them. Here’s one I finished.)
I came across this concept somewhere a few years ago, and it’s a good one. The idea being that some metaphors are “dead” because they no longer invoke in your mind the thing they describe. Examples abound, but one that comes to mind is “he’s in over his his head.” Originally, this probably referred to crossing a river or being caught in a flood — that a person was in water too deep in which to stand. You’d picture someone “out of his depth” (another one) unable to touch the ground and flailing. But now, you hear those phrases, and you understand it to mean a person not up to a task. You no longer imagine the flood and the flailing. The water is not pictured at all.
When writing, if you find yourself reverting to dead metaphors, invent new ones. If you mean to describe someone who is “in over his head,” you could write, “he’s a eunuch with a harem.” It will sound odd because the reader hasn’t heard it before, but that’s the point. You want the reader to picture the thing described. If he doesn’t picture it, there’s no point in using a metaphor — you might as well have just said, “He’s not up to the task.”
I’ve thought about this concept quite a bit, but only recently in the context of our political discourse. I hear a lot of people with whom I mostly agree referring to “the left” or “leftists” or “liberals” in a pejorative way, and it misses the mark. The “left” is so vague, so over-broad, it doesn’t capture what the writer actually means which might be, for example, “the authoritarian scolds who no longer believe in free speech,” “the victimhood-equals-status crowd,” “the micro-aggression police, pushing the HR-ification of society” — there are living ways to define the thing they mean with greater precision and clarity.
It’s important because while you could fill cruise ships with people who like mocking Saturday-detention-proctor types, if you don’t describe the demographic and behavior with sufficient specificity, it’s just
“low hanging fruit” dunking on a six-foot hoop. To anyone not already persuaded of your viewpoint, your effort will look like empty partisan signaling rather than sharp commentary.
Perhaps I’m overrating the power of words to persuade in 2023 — many people come about their beliefs emotionally, and reasoned argument won’t convince them otherwise. But I still believe there are many non-ideological people just trying to make sense of an increasingly strange and alienating information environment. It is they who might be persuaded by a clear depiction, a vague thought they had but could not articulate until someone helped crystalize it for them via high-definition image.
They might think, “Yes! This is exactly the kind of size-too-small straitjacket that took the joy out of fantasy baseball shit-posting.” Instead of reflexively dismissing it, they might see how it’s affecting them. And once someone starts to see, it’s hard to unsee. If your aim is to
plant a seed incept an idea in the minds of others, it’s worth the effort to create something the vulture of over-usage hasn’t picked clean.