As defined in our glossary, a mixed metaphor is a succession of incongruous or ludicrous comparisons. When two or more metaphors (or cliches) are jumbled together, often illogically, we say that these comparisons are "mixed."
In "Garner's Modern American Usage", Bryan A. Garner offers this classic example of a mixed metaphor from a speech by Boyle Roche in the Irish Parliament:
"Mr. Speaker, I smell a rat. I see him floating in the air. But mark me, sir, I will nip him in the bud."
This sort of mixed metaphor may occur when a speaker is so familiar with the figurative sense of a phrase ("smell a rat," "nip in the bud") that he fails to recognize the absurdity that results from a literal reading.
Now and then a writer may deliberately introduce mixed metaphors as a way of exploring an idea. Consider this example from British journalist Lynne Truss:
"Well, if punctuation is the stitching of language, language comes apart, obviously, and all the buttons fall off. If punctuation provides the traffic signals, words bang into each other and everyone ends up in Minehead. If one can bear for a moment to think of punctuation marks as those invisibly beneficent fairies (I'm sorry), our poor deprived language goes parched and pillowless to bed. And if you take the courtesy analogy, a sentence no longer holds the door open for you to walk in, but drops it in your face as you approach."
Some readers may be amused by this sort of metaphorical mix; others may find it tiresomely twee.
In most cases, mixed metaphors are accidental, and the haphazard juxtaposition of images is likely to be more comical or perplexing than revealing. So stick these examples in your pipe and chew them over.
- "So now what we are dealing with is the rubber meeting the road, and instead of biting the bullet on these issues, we just want to punt."
- "The bill is mostly a stew of spending on existing programs, whatever their warts may be."
- "A friend of mine, talking about the Democratic presidential candidates, tossed out a wonderful mixed metaphor: 'This is awfully weak tea to have to hang your hat on.'"
- "The mayor has a heart as big as the Sahara for protecting 'his' police officers, and that is commendable. Unfortunately, he also often strips his gears by failing to engage the clutch when shifting what emanates from his brain to his mouth. The bullets he fires too often land in his own feet."
- "The walls had fallen down and the Windows had opened, making the world much flatter than it had ever been -- but the age of seamless global communication had not yet dawned."
- "'I've spent a lot of time in the subways,' said Shwa. 'It's a dank and dark experience. You feel morbid. The environment contributes to the fear that develops in men and women. The moment that you walk into the bowels of the armpit of the cesspool of crime, you immediately cringe.'"
- "Anyone who gets in the way of this cunning steamroller will find himself on a card-index file and then in hot -- very hot -- water."
- A Pentagon staffer, complaining that efforts to reform the military have been too timid: "It's just ham-fisted salami-slicing by the bean counters."
- "All at once, he was alone in this noisy hive with no place to roost."
- "Top Bush hands are starting to get sweaty about where they left their fingerprints. Scapegoating the rotten apples at the bottom of the military's barrel may not be a slam-dunk escape route from accountability anymore."
- "It is easy to condemn Thurmond, Byrd and their fellow pork barons. Few of us would hail a career spent stewarding the federal gravy train as the vocation of a statesman."
- "Rather than wallowing in tears, let this passionate community strike while the iron is hot. It probably won't cost the National Park Service a single penny, will be no skin off its nose, will heal the community and it presents a golden opportunity for first-person interpretation."
- "Federal Judge Susan Webber Wright stepped up to the plate and called a foul."
- "Robert D. Kaplan keeps getting into scrapes at the keyboard. 'I wanted a visual sense of the socioeconomic stew in which Al Qaeda flourished.' You smile in admiration, as at something rare, like a triple play; it's a double mixed metaphor."
Remember this: Keep an eye on your metaphors and an ear to the ground so that you don't end up with your foot in your mouth.
Lynne Truss, "Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation", 2003
Chicago Tribune, cited by The New Yorker, August 13, 2007
The New York Times, January 27, 2009
Montgomery Advertiser, Alabama, cited by The New Yorker, November 16, 1987
Bob Herbert, "Behind the Curtain," The New York Times, November 27, 2007
Thomas L. Friedman, "The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century", 2005
Our Town, N.Y., cited by The New Yorker, March 27, 2000
Len Deighton, "Winter: A Novel of a Berlin Family", 1988
The Wall Street Journal, May 9, 1997
Tom Wolfe, "The Bonfire of the Vanities"
Frank Rich, The New York Times, July 18, 2008
Jonathan Freedland, "Bring Home The Revolution", 1998
Daily Astorian, cited by The New Yorker, April 21, 2006
Catherine Crier, "The Case Against Lawyers", 2002
David Lipsky, "Appropriating the Globe," The New York Times, November 27, 2005
Garner, Bryan A. "Garner's Modern American Usage." 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, October 30, 2003.