Sunday, March 29, 2015

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 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.

What led me to think about mixed metaphors this evening was a thought about the late Fr Gordon, who had a talent for detecting mixed metaphors. 'X college,' he once told me showing a report published in one of the issues of the college magazine in the 1980s, 'is blazing a trail and breaking new ground' and roared with laughter.


  1. Very interesting, article, sir. Can the following also be called mixed metaphors, sir?
    a) The film star was enjoying the music of the noisy uproar from the fans as he entered the auditorium.
    b) The diver held his horses only to dive on the spur of the moment.
    c) With our new luxury First Class on-board suite, you discover yourself being close to your home even while flying at 30,000 feet in air.

    1. (a) No, because it is possible that noise produced by the swinging of fans is "music" to some ears. It is certainly unusual and even bizarre; at the most you can call it an oxymoronic idea -- like darkness being "visible" in Milton's Hell (Paradise Lost). My son used to like the noise produced by the banging of objects like empty tin boxes. I'm sure you agree that music is not something that can be produced only by human vocal organs and the so-called musical instruments; it can emanate from just anything. Whether what emanates is music or not is a subjective consideration or assessment. So, metaphors are not mixed here; as a matter of fact, there is only one metaphor. This brings to my mind what Dr Johnson said when he was asked whether he enjoyed music: 'No, but I agree that music is the least disagreeable of all noises.'
      (b) Yes
      (c) No