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Real-Life Mixed Metaphors

Use mixed metaphors when they serve your purposes. Just make sure you’re using them intentionally.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #619

Mixed Metaphors

Metaphor and clichés are often fixed phrases, and when people get the parts confused, they can become funny. For example, I once heard someone mix together “See the writing on the wall” and “Wake up and smell the coffee,” saying “Wake up and smell the coffee on the wall.” That doesn’t make much sense, which makes it kind of funny. It also makes me imagine a kitchen in such disarray that coffee has been splattered on the walls.

When I asked people on the Grammar Girl Facebook page to tell me about mixed metaphors they’ve heard, I got some good ones!

Emily said her mum says, “If you butter your bread, you must lie in it.”

Clifton says he accidentally combined “That ship has sailed” with “locking the barn after the horse has escaped” to say “That horse has sailed,” and he likes it so much he now sometimes uses it on purpose.

David likes to say, “That’s spilled milk under the bridge” combining “Don’t cry over spilled milk” and “That’s just water under the bridge.”

Tracy says, “We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it,” instead of “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it” and “Don’t burn your bridges.” 

Joanne’s dad says, “If you can’t stand the cook, stay out of the kitchen,” instead of “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” and a few people say, “It’s not rocket surgery,” instead of “It’s not rocket science,” and “It’s not brain surgery.”

And Richard, who was very tired doing university coursework one night described himself as burning the midnight oil at both ends combining “burning the midnight oil” with “burning the candle at both ends.” 

Orwell on Mixed Metaphors

In his famous essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell derided mixed metaphors as a sign that writers aren’t really thinking about what they’re saying since the purpose or a metaphor is to call to mind a visual image, and in a mixed metaphor, the visual image is messed up. He wrote,

“The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images dash—as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot—it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking.”

And honestly, I have no idea what his mixed metaphors mean and that’s probably the point, but as we can see from the commenters who intentionally use mixed metaphors such as “That horse has sailed” and “That’s spilled milk under the bridge,” you can also sometimes evoke surprise that makes your reader or listener give you a second thought. And unexpected juxtapositions are also one way to write good jokes, so an intentional mixed metaphor or cliché might also be a way to get a good laugh from a phrase that would otherwise glide past your reader like water off a duck’s back.

Use mixed metaphors when they serve your purposes. Just make sure you’re using them intentionally.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

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