Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

When Metaphors Outlive Reality

In an early morning meeting, one of my Indian-born coworkers complained in her Mumbai accent, "It's like a game of whack-a-mole. Every time you deal with one thing, something else pops up."

Whack-a-mole has become a standard metaphor, but I wonder how many people have ever actually seen the carnival game that it derives its name from. (Unless there's a computer version that I'm not aware of which keeps it in current. Wii mole, anyone?) Certainly, I've never seen a whack-a-mole game in person, and I'm guessing that it's not very common on the west coast of India either. However I've certainly made whack-a-mole analogies myself, despite never having experienced the game myself.

Some things seem to live on almost primarily as metaphors. A number of common metaphors center around arrows and archery, yet how many people (other than those of us who got the chance long ago at Boy Scout summer camp) have actually seen an archer fire an arrow?

I wonder how long a metaphor can live on in common usage after the reality it's based on has faded into obscurity.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yeah, like that "hoist on his own petard" kind of thing -- whatever does that mean?

Darwin said...

Well you might ask:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petard

PB said...

The last time I was in a Chuck E Cheese they had a whack a mole, this was probably 10 years ago though.

Ben said...

Whack-a-mole is NOT a fun game, very very boring, and you're never certain that you're even playing it, or if you're just whamming things to no effect.

My fav overused saying:
"It's like a scene out of Dante's Inferno." I like it better the more widely and indiscriminately it's used.

Rick Lugari said...

Heh, I didn't know whack a mole was a popular metaphor, though it seems a natural one.

They still have original whack a moles functioning at Cedar Point in OH. You can get a chintzy plastic home model for your rug rats. We bought one thinking it would be good for our special needs son's hand/eye coordination and strength. It wasn't that big of a hit...no pun intended.

http://www.amazon.com/Hasbro-40509-Whac-A-Mole-Game/dp/B0001GDP00

Jim Janknegt said...

They have them in the arcade at Seaworld in San Antonio. I've played... and lost.

bearing said...

I have personally played Whack A Mole games, at Showbiz Pizza (which later turned into Chuck E Cheese, I think) in Dayton, Ohio, about twenty years ago.

It's not easy.

I think it's a fabulous metaphor, but I suppose after all the Whack A Mole games are gone it will mean so much less.

How long do you think we'll be "dialing" each other's cell phone numbers?

Kyle R. Cupp said...

I wonder how long a metaphor can live on in common usage after the reality it's based on has faded into obscurity.

By Jove, I'd say a long while, though it will probably evolve.

Foxfier, formerly Sailorette said...

Circus Circus in Reno and Las Vegas has Whack A Mole.

Myth said...

There are computer versions that I've played; they show up now and then on different game sites. That's the only way I'm familiar with it, I don't think I've ever heard it used as a metaphor before.

Melanie B said...

I too remember whack-a-mole from Showbiz Pizza, didn't know it was called that, though and have never heard of the expression.

Reminds me of an NPR radio call in show I heard once-- can't remember what the show was called-- in which someone asked what "honored in the breach" meant. Sadly, the host didn't know it was from Hamlet and tripped all over himself trying to explain.

angelmeg said...

I used to always wonder about :the greatest thing since sliced bread"

because of course I come from a generation that had never known the unsliced variety. My dad had to explain to me that when he was a kid and went to the store . . . (you get the picture).

I still hear people say it.

Foxfier, formerly Sailorette said...

Hey, unsliced bread is back in fashion!

I know, because the farmers market when I was growing up included dowel-and-board setups to slice loafs evenly.....

Foxfier, formerly Sailorette said...

Thought of one!

"Nitpick."

Exactly how many of the folks here have had to pick nits?

mrsdarwin said...

Alas, anyone who has had to deal with lice (which, like the poor, shall be always with us) will understand the nitpicking reference. Fortunately, the last time I encountered lice was before I had children.

The Sojourner said...

I routinely played whack-a-mole at Chuck E. Cheese during the mid-nineties. So they do still exist. (Or did 10 years ago)

Anonymous said...

THanks for the petard wiki -- so cool, the first demolitions heh heh heh ...

... back to Whack-a-Mole -- there are computer game versions called other things. I'm thinking specifically of a game offered on the Neopets virtual world that is basically that, only tweaked to the Neopets "reality." They used to call that game Whack-a-Ghost, but changed it for legal concerns, ah well.

May I offer this candidate: a person being on tenterhooks.

Brandon said...

I suppose the tricky thing is how long it can last and still be recognized as a figure of speech even though its meaning is not known; when metaphors cease to be recognized as such, they just become literal terms (thus 'waxless', applied to statues that didn't need to be touched up with wax to fix flaws, becomes 'sincere'). Anonymous's 'On tenterhooks' is a really good one; it goes back to the eighteenth century and is just a slight modification of 'on tenters', which goes back to the fourteenth at least. I always liked 'apple of one's eye', which was a metaphor for the pupil as far back as the ninth century, which itself became a metaphor for something cherished because of the KJV (e.g., Deut. 32:10, "He kept him as the apple of his eye").

I've played whack-a-mole before; I liked it, but then, I must have been around six years old.

Anonymous said...

I have it on good authority that old metaphors will last a very very long time.

"[T]here is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves." - George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language"

"[P]hrases are used like [] wheels and piston-rods to make swifter and smoother yet the path of the comfortable. Long words go rattling by us like long railway trains. We know they are carrying thousands who are too tired or too indolent to walk and think for themselves." - G.K. Chesterton, "Orthodoxy"

- Joe Magarac

Anonymous said...

oh my goodness - every Chuck E. Cheese has Whack-A-Mole!

Anonymous said...

And I should add (after reading the other comments), that Chuck E. Cheeses (at least in GA, IL, OH, and FL) currently still have Whack-A-Mole. It's one of my kids' favorite games.

Anonymous said...

I got sick of whack-a-mole, so I started shooting arrows into them.