Have you ever given thought to the colorful metaphors politicians use every day either to sum up their positions or to describe the complexities of a difficult issue? Consider the countless times you’ve heard an elected official say a particular strategy or outcome amounts to a “win-win situation.” Or that a politically cumbersome proposal is just “pie in the sky.”
I’ve never heard a politician describe an outcome as being “lose-lose,” but I have heard paid consultants talk about a situation being “win-lose.” I’ve always taken that to mean the consultant doesn’t really have an answer to the problem (certainly, a losing proposition for elected officials), but they are pleased to be getting paid anyway (obviously, a win for the consultants).
There are other phrases that tend to be heard during debate between elected officials. If a politician feels a proposal fails to meet its stated goal, he might say, “You are barking up the wrong tree.” Then again, a politician might not want to “take the bull by the horns” in resolving an issue.
If county commissioners believe they are forced to choose between two unpopular options, they are said to be “caught between a rock and a hard place.”
Failing to take timely action on a particular issue could leave local officials “up the river without a paddle.” On the other hand, deciding on an issue too quickly might mean elected leaders are “jumping the gun.”
Politicians are implored often to “bite the bullet” when making difficult decisions. Other times they are asked to avoid making “snap judgments.”
And when they do change their minds on issues (i.e. Mitt Romney on abortion, health care reform and gun control) they are called “flip-floppers.”
Elected leaders who are accused of failing to hold adequate public hearings on a particular issue are said to be turning a “deaf ear to the will of the people.” Those who listen too well might be charged with “caving in to a mob mentality.” Politicians who strike a consensus on public matters in private are accused of “making deals behind closed doors.” Worse yet, some of these secret deals are made in “smoke-filled rooms.”
State lawmakers often talk about going down a “slippery slope” with passage of a particular bill. Legislators from West Tennessee are particularly fond of saying, “That dog won’t hunt,” in arguing against a bill.
We in the news business also are guilty of using trite metaphors and clichés to make our point. Some of us have been guilty also of mangling an otherwise common expression to create what author and former newspaper writing coach Paula LaRocque calls a “mixaphor.” LaRocque noted a few examples of these mixaphors a few years ago in her column in the Quill, the monthly magazine for members of the Society of Professional Journalists.
One example she cites came from an editor who told a panel of journalists things could easily go “hog-wired” in a newsroom without proper supervision. Obviously, the editor meant things could go “haywire” if reporters are allowed to go “hog wild.” No argument there.
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.