Saturday, February 19, 2011

Blaze a trail and break new ground

“In computer education, the college has blazed a trail and broken new ground”, read a sentence in a recent newspaper article about the achievements of a college in computer education.  I tried to picture the situation: the students and the staff of the college burning a path and breaking a new ground at the same time.  It seemed a purposeless task – the blazing and the breaking, not the picturing.  Then I tried to place computers in the situation: what were they supposed to be doing in a place where a good deal of blazing and breaking was going on?  Whatever, they had to be there because the sentence talked about computers also.  But their presence only made the picture even more incongruous.

Incongruous it may be, but delightful – or, delightful because it is incongruous.  Both “blaze a trail” and “break new ground” are cliches.  By bringing them together in the same situation and creating a metaphorical confusion involving two images at war with each other, the newspaper hack has unwittingly infused life into them.  Here is another odd mix: “He was rushing about like a bull in a china shop, until he found himself on the horns of a dilemma.”  Even more ridiculous – and, therefore, more pleasing – is the metaphorical confusion created by the scientist who announced the discovery of “a virgin field pregnant with possibilities”.  The most delightful of all mixed metaphors, however, is the one produced by that cautious statesman who claimed that he was “sitting on the fence with one ear to the ground”.  Picture that monstrous ear!

Poets are notorious – I mean, famous – for mixed metaphors.  Shakespeare, a densely figurative poet, often mixed metaphors.  Hamlet, in his famous soliloquy, “To be or not to be”, talks about taking “arms against a sea of troubles”.

But that’s just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg.  The plot thickens – it’s a plot within an iceberg after all! – the moment we enter the realm of multiple mixed metaphors.  One of the early masters of this art was Sir Boyle Roche, a British parliamentarian, who is reported to have said: “Mr Speaker, I smell a rat; I see him forming in the air and darkening the sky; but I’ll nip him in the bud.”  

If you gird up your loins and plough through the mountainous mass of mixed metaphors, you’ll find that the richest crop has been produced by politicians.  (By the way, how’s that multiple mixed metaphor?) The following example (cited by Beresford in his A User’s Guide to Grammar) in which a politician mixes maritime and equestrian imagery, will vouch for the quality of that bumper crop: “We shall sail forth, riding roughshod over the backwoodsmen, to establish a new Jerusalem…”

Mixed metaphors make possible what would normally be impossible.  Thanks to them, you can stir up a hornet’s nest and end up with egg on your face; you can open a Pandora’s box, and Trojan horses will jump out; and, of course, a college can blaze and break the ground at the same time.  Let’s not, therefore, bite the hand that lays golden eggs.

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