Forget figures of speech. Avoid them all. Speak cleanly, and commit no rhetorical crimes. What remains is aschematiston.
But that, too, is a vice.
Aschematiston comes from the Greek, meaning without form or figure, and technically it designates not only plain-speaking but also the inappropriate use of figurative speech.
In Trying to Be Cute, I discuss how one way to think about vices (the coin model), considers licit rhetoric to lie between the extremes: the ordinary and any of the various ornamented styles. Most of us know overwrought when we see it, but aschematiston is harder to spot. In particular, sometimes it’s not clear whether a literal interpretation is called for, or whether there’s a hidden metaphorical dimension after all. I termed this phenomenon the metaphorical itch. I often encounter it in surrealist literature, but it’s also present in contextually ambiguous situations.
The last batch of my Nature Magazine headlines falls into this category. See what you think.
- Eating ourselves dry
- Economy in the toilet
- Frozen fruit cake
- How to build a better dad
- How to suck like an octopus
- Winged wonder
My first reaction was: Huh.
What are your guesses: which ones are literal, which metaphorical? What about their subjects? (My answers below.)
If you’ve stuck around on Quiver Quotes for the last three weeks, then you’ve seen approximately 80 headlines drawn from 40 issues of Nature.
That’ll do for a while.
I think it’s time to read on—past the title.