Sunday, December 10, 2006

Apt or Inapt--What's a Metaphor to Do?

I often chide my English teacher acquaintances (and myself, after some 35 years of doing just that) about the thought processes of the general public. At times I worry about that.

For instance, how many people really understand the concept of metaphor? How many people stop to think about a metaphor which has become a cliche?

As a quickie posting, let me discuss two: 1) the good shepherd, and 2) waving a red flag at a bull.

The religious shepherd has long since been a favorite of mine as a truly inapt metaphor for a community of believers. The shepherd protects the herd from the ravages of the world, right? Right. If one were to ponder the idea just a bit beyond the cuddly lamb in the shepherd's arms, though, mustn't one ask what the shepherd gets and what the sheep really get?

The sheep get shorn, to start. Finally, one asks how many sheep, exactly, die of old age? Whence lamb chops? Mutton? Hmmm.

Actually, the shepherd is "protecting" the sheep from the wolf for his own benefit; anything accruing to the sheep is, in the long run, minimal.

Someone recently said that certain statements made by Islamic extremists were similar to these people waving a red flag at Mr. Bush, and that he might be justified in taking military action against them. Before we jump into the fray, however, let's also look at that metaphor a bit more closely.

What is the purpose of the red flag? We get the metaphor from the bull fights of our Hispanic neighbors, and the flag, cape, in their instance, is used to distract the bull by focusing his attention on the cape's movement. The bull theoretically doesn't notice the sword cleverly hidden behind the flag/cape, much to his eventual sorrow.

The one who waves that red cloth usually ends up finishing off the bull. Very seldom is the bull successful. Metaphorically, then, it is a mistake to encourage Mr. Bush to "charge" at a red flag of vituperation. It could well not turn out well for the U.S. for whom Mr. Bush, metaphorically, substitutes.

Wolf 0, Sheep 0, Shepherd 100
Bull 0 (most of the time), Flag/cape waver 100 (most of the time)

Shepherds seem to get the better deal.

Rather than being a bull or even a bull fighter, we should aspire to be metaphorical shepherds, keeping the wolf away and keeping the spoils for ourselves.

By the way, the next time a preacher speaks of loving shepherds, look to your wallets, my ovine compatriots. It's shearing time.

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