Faster, Metaphor! Die! Die!

Earlier this week, I lamented the extinction — or endangerment, rather — of the metaphor in English press. Then I encountered Ebenezer Chaplin, from Sutton, Massachusetts, who in 1773 published his sermon, The Civil State Compared to Rivers. He points out several similarities between the civil state (read: kings) and — you guessed it! — rivers, starting with:

“I. Rivers, with all their brooks and springs, are useful, and absolutely necessary for the well-being of any land or country. Such as are not accommodated with these are uninhabitable.”

Just like the civil state! Good point, Ebenezer! This could be quaint and charming, except Chaplin sustains the wretched simile for TWENTY-FOUR PAGES. Rivers, like the state, can be corrupted. Rivers, like the state, can rise and fall. Rivers, like the state, are better when contained. Oh, also, rivers have waterfalls.

Even in 1773, this must have made for awful, awful reading. And so, on this count, I’m defecting to good ol’ William Strunk Jr., and standing behind Rule #18 in Elements:

Use figures of speech sparingly. The simile is a common device and a useful one, but… [readers] can’t be expected to compare everything with something else, and no relief in sight.”

You tell ’em, Junior.

Strunk has another good observation about metaphors. Don’t mix them, he cautions: “That is, don’t start by calling something a swordfish and end by calling it an hourglass.” Now if Chaplin had thrown a swordfish into one of those rivers — “Rivers, like the civil state, are infested with barracuda” — it would have granted this reader some much-needed relief.

And so remember when I called for the resurrection of the metaphor? I retract that.


Works Cited:

Chaplin, Ebenezer. The Civil State Compared to Rivers, All Under God’s Controul, and What People Have to Do When Administration is Grievous. Boston: 1773. Available through JSTOR with Harvard PIN.

Strunk, William Jr. and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. Needham: Pearson Education, 1959.


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