Category Archives: Metaphor!

Black Hats

As frequent readers know, I have a connection with SUNY-Binghamton, and a distaste for mis-used metaphor.  So it is more in sorrow than anger that I read the latest issue of the SUNY-Binghamton Watson School of Engineering alumni magazine.  In it, there was an article about “white hat hackers” which, as the name implies, are hackers who use their talents for good.  But it seems the authors of the article didn’t trust the connotations of “white hat” and “black hat” hackers to be obvious, and in trying to make it more clear, managed to muddy the waters.  As you can see here, they added a sidebar defining white, gray, and black-hat hackers, and illustrated it with little pictures of hats in those colors.  So far, so good, but for some reason they used black, gray, and white fedoras.

Now, as anyone could tell you, the whole “black hat for the bad guy / white hat for the good guy” thing is a metaphor based on westerns, so the hats used for illustration should have been cowboy hats.  But the choice of a fedora makes it even worse, because a) bad guys are not known for wearing black fedoras (is anyone?), but they are known for wearing white fedoras.  I mean, think about the last time you saw someone in a movie wearing a white fedora.

It was this guy, right?









Frank Nitti in The Untouchables is hardly the first person most people would go to for help, computer-based or otherwise.  Or maybe you thought of Sydney Greenstreet, in some movie where he wasn’t just wearing a fez.  Again, not one of the good guys, I bet.

Now, maybe the illustrator was making a callback to the fact that these days, about the only people who wear fedoras are computer science majors, but in that case, shame on them.  We don’t need anyone encouraging that behavior, especially not at my alma mater.



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Idiomatic Mirroring

cold-chickenI’m endlessly fascinated by idioms – mostly by the way people misuse them, of course.  Mostly, problems arise when people don’t think back to how the metaphorical language came about,but there are other ways cliches and idioms can go wrong.  For instance, in normal use of language, one can often flip the meaning of a sentence by reversing a pharsal verb in it (running into a house vs. running out of a house, for example).

But idioms make things tricker.  There are a number of tragedies in the events at the chicken houses that serve Pilgrim’s Pride, where a whole mess of chickens were killed by vengeful idiots before they could be turned into tenders or whatever.  But amongst all the other little tragedies was Clarendon County Sheriff Randy Garrett forgetting this characteristic of idiomatic language.  It’s okay, if you must, to use the colloquial “jack up” rather than “turn up” to describe someone turning up the heat on unfortunate chickens, Sheriff, but you probably shouldn’t have tried to mirror the language when you described the heat being turned off for other chickens.


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Well, I Can’t Complain About This

Heaven knows I am pretty hard on mis-used cliches, but this here?  This is awesome.water-barometer-transparent

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Filed under Grammar Gripery, Metaphor!

Global Positioning Metaphors

brain-mapToday’s Nobel Prize announcement was for physics, specifically for the invention of efficient blue LEDs, which is great both because it allows for proper white LEDs (when combined with the old red and green LEDs that are apparently easier to make), but more importantly because it means all the talk of this year’s Nobel prize for medicine has settled down a bit.  And of course, all the news stories about this year’s Nobel prize in medicine refer to the clever folks who discovered the “GPS for the brain”, or worse yet “GPS system for the brain“, or “Brain’s GPS Discovery“, which makes me grit my teeth.  Bad metaphors make me grit my teeth, of course, as does confusion about geospatial things – the combination of the two is just torture.

The annoying thing is that the global positioning system could have some pretty good metaphorical uses, but only if properly used as meaning something that tells you where you are. Ideally, the metaphor would also involve triangulation from multiple points, like the GPS does, but that’s optional.  The problem is that most people try to use it when it would be better to use GIS – a Geographic Information System.  The GPS tells you where you are – the GIS tells you where everything else is (that bit on your GPS receiver that displays maps and maybe a little pictogram of a car is the GIS).  So this new discovery in medicine should be called “The brain’s GIS”, if you gotta call it anything.

The other advantage there is that, if you want to get pedantic (and I rarely pass up a chance to), GIS is a common noun, while GPS is a proper noun – there is, at least to one way of thinking, only one Global Positioning System, which consists of the receivers, the satellites, and all the bits at observatories that control it all (you could argue that GLONASS, Galileo, and BeiDou, the non-American versions of the GPS, are, in a sense, GPS-es, but lets drop that for now).  It gets tricky arguing that “a brain” has a GPS, is what I’m saying, even if it did mimic the function.

Talking about a “GPS system for the brain” is just extra annoying since the word “system” is already in the acronym (or initialization, if you want to be pedantic).  And of course, “Brain’s GPS discovery” just a good ol’ crash blossom.

Anyway, it’s a bad metaphor and everyone should just stop using it now.  This is also what Randall Monroe is a goddamn national treasure (well, one reason) – he’s about the only one I’ve ever seen get it right.



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Getting Your Hands Wet

Frequent  readers will know about my particular obsession with mis-used cliches.   The latest one that I ran across involves someone saying that she was “getting her hands wet”.  In the context, I think she meant “getting her feet wet”, as in learning some new skill or trying out new things, easing into it as you would water that you might be unsure of.   It was possible, of course, that she meant she was “getting her hands dirty“, or diving right in and working at something, rather than standing back and keeping her hands neat and tidy.  Most likely she was mixing up the two sayings, at any rate.

Or perhaps it was a deliberate combination, suggesting that she was new to some task, and also rolling up her sleeves and getting right into it!  That would be pretty clever, actually.

Or come to think of it, maybe we’ve got a Lady MacBeth situation on our hands.


Uh, I better go make a call.

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I Hope I’m Not a Metaphor For Anything

SMBC_playI’m just not sure what I’d end up representing, what with one thing and another, is all I’m saying.


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Filed under General Writing Things, Metaphor!

Metaphors Are Even More Important Than I Thought

brainThere’s an interesting article at the Chronicle of Higher Education about how the body relates to consciousness.  I’m sure ya’ll will read the whole thing, but the thrust of the article is about how literal versus metaphorical versus idiomatic speech.  It seems that human language is so littered with metaphors that we may not even not notice that it may be vital to consciousness.  This has even led to the theory that artificial intelligence may not even be possible because of the lack of bodies on the part of these theoretical AIs – if they can’t properly think of stocks rising and looking forward into the future they may not be up to snuff, smarts-wise.

I was interested, though, to see that when neuroscientists study the brain to see what happens when they think of different phrases, idioms cause confusion.  When people think of metaphors, the brain basically does the same thing it would if the body was acting the metaphor out, but things get all confused with idioms.  Well, no one asked me, but clearly that it because large numbers of people don’t understand the idioms they use all the time.  Heck, even the great Stephen King sometimes gets confused.  If Steve’s brain had been scanned while he talked about about “getting up on his hobby horse” that time, he probably would have been envisioning not a hobby horse but a noble high horse.  Then someone else saying it might have envisioned a little wheely horse and someone else a stick horse, and, well, try averaging all that together and getting something consistent.

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