Saturday, December 23, 2006

Ogres Are Like Onsions

Ian Ayres

SHREK: Ogres are like onions.

DONKEY: [Sniffs] They stink?

SHREK: Yes. No!

DONKEY: They make you cry?


DONKEY: You leave them out in the sun, they get all brown, start sprouting' little white hairs.

SHREK: No! Layers! Onions have layers!

I overhead my kids playacting these lines and they seemed a perfect example of a central mistake in using metaphors. The author’s intended meaning is often not the meaning taken by the audience. Every metaphor has maniforld meanings. Every metaphor "hides" part of its meaning. My father-in-law, Theodore L. Brown, taught me this in his excellent book, Making Truth: Metaphor in Science.

When you tell a friend: “This article about city corruption is dynamite.” You might only intend to suggest that it is interesting. But the metaphor, like dynamite, might explode in ways that injurer the author.

A hard, but useful, lesson is to pause and consider unintended meanings of metaphors before you trot them out.

I still fall prey to this problem. I remember presenting to my colleagues the case for a truly great appointments candidate late one Spring. I concluded my presentation by saying that the recommendation of the appointments committee put me in mind of the “Wedding at Cana”. I had intended this to bring to their minds that the appointments committee had saved the best for last. But some of my colleagues pointed out that I might have been implying that this was the committee’s first miracle, or even worse that this process had somehow converting the candidate’s scholarship from water into wine.


The best metaphors are mixed ones. They indicate how carefully the author is thinking about the multiplicity of meanings derivable from the metaphors:

Captain Zapp Brannigan: "If we hit that bullseye, the rest of the dominoes should fall like a house of cards. Checkmate."

Orwell: "The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song."

Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.
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