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Multimedia Dead Metaphors

December 24th, 2008 · 21 Comments

A thought stemming from a throwaway line in a post about something else over at Ars: Are we at the point yet of having developed multimedia dead metaphors? We’ve got tons of prose dead metaphors—expressions that started as evocative figures of speech but eventually lost any link to the original image they were supposed to call up. As some of you may recall, it actually took me a little bit of research earlier this year to figure out where the commonly-used expression “in the tank” came from. We hear it all the time, and we’ve grasped from context that it’s usually used to suggest a journalist secretly wants a particular candidate to win, but we don’t infer that meaning from any analogy to fixed boxing matches, let alone images of diving into a swimming pool. Presumably there are kids out there who, similarly, know perfectly well what “drink the Kool-Aid” means without ever having heard of Jim Jones. That one is probably not quite a dead metaphor yet, but it is certainly what Orwell would have called a dying one.   And there’s all those symbols that the pomo theorists we mostly ignored in my analytic undergrad department loved to talk about, abstracted from their original referents—the chess bishop comes to mind.

Now think about film: It has plenty of its own idioms and tropes too. Has it been long enough for some of them to be dead or dying? Because the other day I saw a film trailer that began with a montage clearly meant to invoke “telecommunications”—a couple of seconds worth of images and sounds that would quickly establish for the viewer that this was about, you know, techie stuff—data traveling over wires. One of these was the sound of an old dial-up modem handshaking protocol—14.4kbps, I think. And it suddenly struck me that, possibly excepting a credit card machine at a deli or something, most people under about 25 wouldn’t have any reason to be familiar with that sound in real life. They’d only know it as “that sound in movies that means telecom.”

So I started trying to come up with other examples. Sepiatone or Super-8 colors are sometimes used to suggest that we’re witnessing a flashback to the 20s or 70s, respectively, and a young viewer now might encounter that in several films before ever seeing a really old photograph or an old home movie. Ditto with black-and-white film, come to think of it. There’s that little snippet from the score of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly now universally recognized as signifying “cowboy showdown” by people who’ve never seen the movie, or indeed, any old Western. (Confession: I actually haven’t seen that movie, and had to Google to figure out where it originally came from.) You play that in a scene where two guys meet at the office water cooler and we instantly understand that they’re workplace rivals.  Those are the only ones that immediately spring to mind, but I’m sure there are others; enlighten us in the comments.

Update: On the Media hit the increasingly anachronistic use of the vinyl-scratch as all-purpose WTF sound in a 2005 episode.

Tags: Art & Culture · Language and Literature


       

 

21 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jesse // Dec 24, 2008 at 11:28 am

    As a dice/card game design nerd, I’m struck by how often I hear people using dice/card metaphors without their having ever played the game being referred to, or even realizing that it’s a metaphor. For instance, I tend to get funny looks when I exclaim “No dice!” as a rolled die caroms out of the rolling area, as that’s often the first time people have heard that expression used in its original, literal form.

    My favorite deep game metaphor: “check”—as in either “I’ll check the mail,” or “The check is in the mail”—is derived from the chess term, which in turn comes from the word “shah”. Though now we’re just blurring the line between metaphor and straight-up etymology…

  • 2 Jacob T. Levy // Dec 24, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    “Dead metaphors” seems to me the wrong phrasing here– because surely what’s interesting about these metaphors is that they’re undead, still up and shambling about, just devoid of their original animating soul.

  • 3 schadenfreude // Dec 24, 2008 at 1:50 pm

    Just the other day, I was in the car with my son when “Tie A Yellow Ribbon” came on the radio. I was trying to explain to my son the story of the song, and why it is perfectly normal for a middle age man to tear up when the song comes on. While he was unimpressed with the song and my explanation, he was impressed that such a cheesy song could be the source of the yellow “support our troops” ribbons.

  • 4 Tim Lee // Dec 24, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    How is “the check is in the mail” derived from the chess term?

  • 5 Emma Zahn // Dec 24, 2008 at 3:01 pm

    Metaphors are such useful communications devices but only work in cultures with common histories and shared knowledge bases as I first realized from this Star Trek: TNG episode:

    Darmok

    The universal translator is able to translate the words but not the metaphors of a new contact.

    There are some clips of the episode up on YouTube. Haven’t watched them so am not sure how well they convey the dilemma.

    Keep thinking. I love these sort of posts.

  • 6 Julian Sanchez // Dec 24, 2008 at 4:49 pm

    I don’t think it is, though they both come from Arabic, and its possibly they’re distantly related. “Check” as in “check mate” is from “shah mat” (the king is dead). The check/cheque you mail is from “?akk,” meaning a note of credit. That term, in turn, appears to derive from a term meaning to strike or imprint one’s seal, as on a document or coin — basically, an IOU in lieu of payment in specie. I don’t feel like doing a lot of etymological research, but it seems possible, given that rulers are the ones who tend to imprint seals and coin money, that “?akk” is somehow related to “shah”—maybe a truncation of a compound meaning something like “the shah’s seal/imprint.” But that’s a pure guess.

  • 7 Julian Sanchez // Dec 26, 2008 at 5:52 am

    Emma-
    So, I loved that episode, but soon after first seeing it, details started to bug me. Like, the concept of an all-metaphor language was cool, but… how did they convey the stories upon which the metaphors were based? Don’t you need a conventional nouns-and-verbs first order language FIRST in order for these other terms to get invested with significance? If not and/or additionally, how did they talk about engine maintenance problems?

  • 8 Chuchundra // Dec 26, 2008 at 10:21 am

    The Darmok episode and its story-based language is one of those cool and interesting SF concepts that makes no sense at all if you think about it for more than 30 seconds. Star Trek has a bunch of them.

    You could, perhaps, explain it by saying that metaphor-based language is used only by the elites. Everyone learns and uses standard noun-verb-object sentences when they’re a child, but using it in conversation as an adult marks you as one of the lower classes or simply an uneducated simpleton.

  • 9 Dan G. // Dec 26, 2008 at 10:44 am

    I think there was a NYTimes article a number of years ago along the lines of this post – it focused on a scene in “Never Been Kissed” where somebody hangs up on Drew Barrymore while she’s talking on a cell phone, and a click-and-dial-tone sound effect was added for emphasis. Can’t think of a more recent example of this, though.

  • 10 Petey // Dec 26, 2008 at 4:37 pm

    “Presumably there are kids out there who, similarly, know perfectly well what “drink the Kool-Aid” means without ever having heard of Jim Jones. “

    Presumably, there are kids out there who write about the origins of the “drink the Kool-Aid” metaphor without having ever heard of Ken Kesey.

  • 11 Ropty // Dec 26, 2008 at 4:49 pm

    The record scratch.

    Except for an occasional DJ mishap, noone under 25 or even 30 (or so) has had a music suddenly stop with the sound of the scratch (except for TV and movies).

  • 12 Julian Sanchez // Dec 26, 2008 at 5:14 pm

    Petey:
    Consider undertaking a quick Google search before you “correct” people. It’s apt to spare you a good deal of embarrassment.

  • 13 biggerbox // Dec 26, 2008 at 5:18 pm

    Despite my fondness for the Merry Pranksters, my recollection is that the common use of “drink the Kool-Aid”, in the sense of ‘subscribe to a group ideology’ didn’t gain prominence until after the Jonestown incident.

    Jones may well have known about, and gotten his idea from Kesey’s LSD technique, but I’d judge that the metaphor started with Jonestown.

  • 14 Petey // Dec 26, 2008 at 5:40 pm

    “Despite my fondness for the Merry Pranksters, my recollection is that the common use of “drink the Kool-Aid”, in the sense of ’subscribe to a group ideology’ didn’t gain prominence until after the Jonestown incident.”

    According to Wikipedia, the phrase doesn’t first appear as metaphor until 1987.

    So both Kool-Aid drinking references were floating around together in the collective unconsciousness together for 9 years before it got crystalized into a meme that could show up in LexisNexis.

    —–

    “Consider undertaking a quick Google search before you “correct” people. It’s apt to spare you a good deal of embarrassment.”

    Basically disagree. Anything short of you having actually written a Kesey biography wouldn’t detract from the apropos poesy of my comment.

  • 15 Emma Zahn // Dec 26, 2008 at 6:55 pm

    how did they convey the stories upon which the metaphors were based?

    Visually? Just guessing but that is how I understood the metaphor “jumpy as a cat on a hot tin roof”. I had actually seen one before I ever heard the expression.

    Don’t you need a conventional nouns-and-verbs first order language FIRST in order for these other terms to get invested with significance?

    Not a linguist but aren’t the terms in my example just simple natural language sensory descriptives.

    If not and/or additionally, how did they talk about engine maintenance problems?

    I may be betraying my demographic in this comment but I can tell you have never watched a bunch of guys tinker with an automobile engine for hours and hours and exchange fewer words among them than are in your original post. I don’t pretend to understand how they communicate, but somehow they do.

  • 16 Tomorrow Museum » Archive » Merry Linkmas // Dec 26, 2008 at 9:56 pm

    [...] “Lazysphere” is winning as 1.9% of the 1.8M tweets used either the word retweet or RT, multimedia dead metaphors, designing through the recession, Erin’s podcasting again at Steady Diet of Film and posted [...]

  • 17 Erstwhile // Dec 29, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    You appear to have used the word “apt” when you meant “likely.”

    I’ll probably never forgive you.

  • 18 Sandy // Dec 29, 2008 at 7:33 pm

    Lots of “turn off the TV” visuals include either static or the picture shrinking down to a point before disappearing. Few modern TVs will display static, and if it isn’t yet dead it soon will be. I’m not sure the last time I saw a TV that will actually shrink down to a point when turning off…it has to be at least 10 years.

    Similarly, lots of cell phones have simulations of two bells inside an old-style telephone being struck. I’m positive many readers of this blog have never heard the original in person.

  • 19 Glen // Dec 30, 2008 at 1:06 am

    I’ve noticed a lot of movies and TV shows (including the one I work for) using paper tickets for airplanes, despite the fact that pretty much everyone gets e-tickets now. And it seems like I’ve recently seen lovers accompany each other all the way to the gate for one person’s departing flight, despite this having been impossible since 9/11.

    Also, I’m reminded of Joss Whedon’s decision to insert old Western movie tropes into Firefly, including tropes that were a result of the film technology of the time — such as oversaturated shots, light spots in the camera lens, brief loss of focus in action shots, etc.

  • 20 Julian Sanchez // Dec 30, 2008 at 3:01 am

    Sandy-
    I vaguely recall reading the observation a few years back — I think it was in an interview with William Gibson — that the iconic first line of Neuromancer (“The sky above the port was the color of a television tuned to a dead channel”) now gives totally the wrong impression, suggesting a rich, uniform blue rather than a mottled gray.

  • 21 Barry // Jan 8, 2009 at 9:07 pm

    Shoot, Julian – I was gonna use that.

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