Stanford University President Gerhard Casper once gave a speech in which he commented on his tendency to mix metaphors, which amused and at times bemused those around him. My favorite of the ones he quoted was:
“Let’s not drop anchor when we aren’t out of the woods yet”
My best friend, my wife and I got into the habit of calling such things “split metaphors” and keeping track of ones that made us laugh. Here are a few:
“I don’t think she’s shooting straight off the bottom of the deck”
“You really hit the nose on the face”
“He’s so good at chess that every time we play, he cleans my butt”
What are your favorite split metaphors?
Author: Keith Humphreys
Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.
View all posts by Keith Humphreys
58 thoughts on “What Are Your Favorite Split Metaphors?”
Of course the classic (invented) is Orwell’s “The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot.” https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm
Also invented (for the movie Mallrats): “Why buy the cow, when you can get the sex for free?”
“This virgin forest, pregnant with natural resources, is the only place in the state where the hand of man has not set foot.”
I’m not sure who used it first, but see this, from the Anna Livia chapter of James Joyce’s experimental comic novel of 1937, Finnegans Wake:
“Where there’s a rhyme there’s a reason.”
Walking on water wasn’t built in a day.
Grab the stick by both ends and beat around the bush with it.
I’ve always liked the carrot-on-a-stick approach. But some people think it’s a pile of crock.
Heard used in a meeting at work long ago:
“Pick up the gauntlet and run with it.”
It was a struggle not to laugh…
Glad I didn’t have to resist!
That one actually has a rationale, see gantlet.
We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.
Isn’t that the motto of the Republican Party?
I was going to reply to Warren that there are people for whom that’s not fractured English; it’s their way of life.
My grandmother used to say (knowing full well what she was saying), “Well, we’ll jump off that bridge when we get to it”.
Some years ago I remember having a chuckle over an article in the local paper about abuses on the language by some of our Maryland state legislators. This is the one that sticks in my head:
Those damn birds cause all sorts of havok around planting time.
I used to work with a lawyer who was notable for his malapropisms. My favorite was the time he said, “We have to shit or get off the fan.” It was not easy keeping a straight face through that.
Why did the chicken cross the road? To come home to roost.
That’s right boys and girls, the marijuana chicken has finally crossed the road, and come home to roost. (the comment system is refusing the link)
I don’t know what you were trying to link us up to but I really want to see it.
I tried again but the comment system trashcans any comment I make that includes the link.
Google “Thatâ€™s right boys and girls, the marijuana chicken has finally crossed the road, and come home to roost.”
My favorite comes from Heinlein’s Starman Jones, when Sam tells Max, “Let sleeping dogs bury their own dead.” Sam has some others, but that’s my favorite.
Not sure if this qualifies, but a German I know who speaks nearly perfect English once exclaimed to me: “We’re up s*** creek without a spoon!” But my favorite remains: “Spare the rod and spoil the broth.”
“Let’s not get in the cart before the horse knows where it’s going,” said my beloved partner, with complete conviction. He is the absolute king of split metaphors.
You can’t pull the wool out of my eyes.*
This stuff is some funny. Really great, thanks.
*told to me years ago by my best old bud Craig Melvin, long my he wave.
A loved one has said, “I feel like I’m at the edge of my rope.”
A mind like a steel sieve.
No, though itÂ´s a very good joke: the bathetic twist is deliberate. KeithÂ´s mixed metaphors have be unintentionally funny, or are constructed so as to appear so.
Yes, mixed metaphors result from their creators’ either not thinking about or not understanding the literal meaning or the origin of the metaphor. This is a danger in the use of any clichÃ©. Sometimes it doesn’t result in a mixed metaphor, but simply in an error, such as “tow the line” instead of “toe the line.”
“Tow the line,” although it’s not the original formation, makes a kind of sense, though.
Think of a team of laborers towing a barge along a canal.
I like “A mind like a steel tack” or “sharp as a steel trap”, myself.
Somewhere, I once read a description of someone as having a mind like a steel trap trying to catch the watery flow of thought.
@Everyone: This has been hilarious, thanks for sending these in.
My English teacher called these “mixed metaphors.” So does Wikipedia, which also gets a bit fancy:
“catachresis: A mixed metaphor used by design and accident (a rhetorical fault).”
@Jay: Yes that is the proper term, “Split metaphors” is a meta-joke because it’s a crossing of split infinitive and mixed metaphor.
Then what’s a mixed infinitive?
This isn’t rocket surgery, you know.
Harry Mathews has a whole collection of stories based on “perverbs”: split proverbs such as “A stitch in time/Gets the worm”.
My father used to refer to “the straw the camel stepped on and broke.”
Perhaps the most famous example is from Shakespeare, the last line of this passage:
To be, or not to be, that is the question;
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
or to take arms against a sea of troubles.
This is called Â¨getting away with itÂ¨, and lesser talents like ours should not try. Cf. Â¨out-HerodÂ´s HerodÂ¨: verbing a common noun in one thing, verbing a proper name another.
Our relative inadequacy is our fardel to bear.
That has become a cliche, substituting some famous person’s name.
A Google search of “out clinton clinton” gets 71,600 hits.
“out bush bush” gets 327,000 hits.
“out obama obama” gets 167,000 hits.
Pretty sure this doesn’t qualify, but at the last place I worked, we used to “do it for the fish”. (The fish was a halibut, of course…)
roll a bowl
We once had a client, a non-native English speaker, who described the academic politics of his department as follows: “There are too many rats trying to get a bigger piece of the cheesecake.” Maybe not exactly up to the specs of the challenge, but humorous nevertheless.
Sorry, I missed the full quote. It was â€œThere are too many rats in the jungle trying to get a bigger piece of the cheesecake.â€
A rather famous one (round these parts), and according to legend was unintentional, was Trotter’s “this paper fills a much-needed gap in the literature.”
Our department secretary once described a task as, ‘like pulling toothpicks from a haystack.’
I used to like to antagonize my mother with “Does the Pope shit in the woods” and “Is the Pope’s ass pork?”
Does a bear wear a funny hat?
We’ve passed a lot of water under the bridge since Keith posted this.
Noted psycholinguist David McNeill collects these mixed metaphors and loves to cite one in particular: “The question is, How do we get a foothold in the public eye?” To which the only reply is, “Ouch”.
Happiness doesn’t grow on trees!
Walt Kelly was a master of perverbs like “Romeo wasn’t bilked in a day” and “He can’t pull my wool over the ice.” His best remembered line, “We have met the enemy and he is us,” also qualifies in this field. But these are not quite the same thing.
I recently heard (at a pol sci conference): â€œI hate to beat around this horse any more.â€ And a few years back I heard (but not at a professional conference) â€œflying off the handlebars.â€ I suppose the common â€œwater under the damâ€ qualifies too.
Also the classic, known to people steeped in legislative rhetoric, “If we don’t stop shearing the wool off the sheep that lays the golden egg, we’ll pump it dry” (John F Parker, ed., “If Elected, I Promise,” p. 82).
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