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Failed metaphors

The following sections examine the various kinds of failed metaphors that emerged from my corpus. Relatively more attention is paid to novel categories. It should be noted that it is irrelevant whether these failed metaphors were produced deliberately or as a result of inappropriate performance. In either case, the hearer/reader has to interpret them as humorous. The only difference might be that if they were produced inadvertently, one can make a case that the target of the humor becomes the speaker of the utterance.


In the case of “un-metaphors” the explanation is fairly straightforward: since the definition of metaphor is a conceptual mapping between two different domains, if one maps one domain upon itself, one does not get a successful metaphor (while preserving the construction which signals the metaphor) and conversely, if one attempts to map two domains that have no connection, no well-formed metaphor emerges. Intuitively the incongruity between the expected metaphor and its failure is enough to explain the humor.

Here are some examples of un-metaphors.[1]

(10) The red brick wall was the color of a brick red Crayola crayon.

This is a straightforward example of self-mapping (mapping a domain upon itself).

(11) The thunder rumbled ominously, making a sound much like the sound of a thin sheet of metal being shaken baclrstage during the storm scene of a play

This example is slightly more complex: the mapping/blend between the domain of storm and sound effect is incongruous, insofar the sound effect is supposed to imitate (or at least evoke fictionally) the source domain and hence obviously should resemble it. It is a case of mapping between a domain and its representation, and hence ultimately a case of self-mapping.

(12) The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.

Example (12) is interesting because it explicitly denies the mapping (which in itself would cause the metaphor to fail) but it also lends itself to manipulation. First of all, the explicit denial of similarity can be removed, without loss of humorous effect, yielding (13).

(13) The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly like a bowling ball. [constructed]

Since bowling balls are notoriously heavy and non-buoyant, it is obvious that they would not float on a pond’s surface (evoked by “drifting across the pond”). This formulation can be generalized into a formula for producing humorous/ ironical un-metaphors. Consider (14)

  • (14) As silent as a garbage truck. [constructed] or
  • (15) As easy to grasp as a lecture on string theory. [constructed]

This suggests strongly that, for one class of humorous metaphors and similes, it is enough to predicate a feature of one domain onto another, Whereas the feature is conspicuously absent from the either domain.[2] Finally, let us consider a sophisticated case:

(16) Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.

In (16) we find no mapping, as in the previous examples, but the lack of mapping is motivated thus providing the appropriate incongruity (Oring 2003). Comparison of this failed metaphor to the following light bulb joke is enlightening:

(17) How many Surrealists does it take to change a light bulb? Fish!

In Attardo (2001: 77), I analyzed this joke as a meta-joke in the light bulb joke cycle. Essentially, it is a joke that fails to deliver the light bulb joke evoked by the canonical first line of the text (the construction “How many X does it take to change a light bulb?”), but does so by making reference, as light bulb jokes do, to the stereotypical characteristics of a given group: in this case, surrealists. Since surrealists enjoyed connecting things that had nothing in common, the answer “Fish!,” which has no connection to the question, is thus appropriate. In (16), we see the same mechanism: the expression “whatever” literally means that the speaker is not interested in any of the specifics of the discourse at hand, hence a fortiori of vocabulary choices. Hence, the speaker of (16) is guilty of the very same fault he/she is accusing the referent of “her”. This self-defeating nature of the utterance is a common feature of humor.

  • [1] One could object that these are not metaphors. However, native speakers label them ashumorous metaphors. This presents a conundrum for a usage-based analysis: either retreat inthe abstraction of theoretical models or accept the inherent messiness of data.
  • [2] On the subject of ironical similes, promising research is being done by Veale and Yao (2007,2008). They find that a remarkably large number (20%) of similes of the “as X as NP” structure,retrieved through Google searches, are ironical (2007: 684).
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