To Wit: An E-zine On How To Be a Wit

This is an E-zine from Thomas Christopher on how to be witty.

A genius sees connections where others see none. A mad man sees connections where there are none.


A way to make metaphors better is to make the vehicle more concrete. We can say LIFE IS A STAGE PLAY, but that is vague. So ask, "What kind of stage play?" and we can construct something like:

“For some, life is a tragedy.
For some, life is a comedy.
I’m auditioning for a bedroom farce.”

Or we ask, "What goes on in a stage play?" and we can get:

Some people are actors,
some are audience,
and some are prompters clutching last year’s script.

Using metaphors to emphasize common ground

A metaphor is one of the most effective devices for making people remember your ideas. A metaphor makes one thing clear and comprehensible by identifying it with a second, different kind of thing. There are two good ways to use metaphors: (1) You can use metaphors to focus attention on the common ground between the two things. (2) You can use metaphors to transfer associations, using what we know about the second thing to see aspects of the first. In this issue, we will look at the first way to use a metaphor. You can use metaphors in either of these ways seriously or for humor.

To understand how to use metaphors, we need to look at their structure. Consider the metaphor, LIFE IS A STORY. The thing you are using the metaphor to describe, LIFE, is called the tenor. The tenor is often abstract or poorly understood and needs the metaphor to clarify it. The different thing that the tenor is identified with, A STORY, is called the vehicle. It is typically more concrete than the tenor, giving us something we can imagine. The tenor and the vehicle need to have something in common, otherwise the metaphor will be too weird to accept. LIFE and A STORY both have characters and conflict. This commonality is called the ground.

Instead of a metaphor, you can use simile. The difference between a metaphor and a simile is that the metaphor identifies one thing with another while a simile only compares two things. It is easier for the mind to do a comparison than to identify two dissimilar things, so if you are only going to make one fleeting reference, it is better to use simile than a metaphor. In any event, the process of finding a simile is the same as finding a metaphor.

When you want to use a metaphor to focus attention on some aspect of a thing, you make that thing the tenor and that aspect the ground. All you need do is find other things that have the same association, that share the ground. Each of those things is a candidate vehicle. If you're using the metaphor to exaggerate the ground for humor, you are interested in other things that have that ground in a big way.

You can use metaphors to emphasize the ground. Suppose you are talking about love, and you want to say it has a delicate beauty. You look for something that has that attribute and make the metaphor. You can say, "Love is a rose, delicate and beautiful.”

You can use metaphors to exaggerate the ground for the purpose of humor. My all-time favorite example of this comes from Phyllis Diller. Referring to her large mother-in-law, whom she calls “Moby Dick,” she says, "When she wears a white dress, we show home movies on her." Notice, she does not say, “She is as big as a movie screen.” She does not say, “She is a movie screen.” She just implies it. For humor, you can’t lay everything out: You can’t talk down to the listener.

A lot of the time, the listeners will have a good idea of what the ground is when you just state the tenor and vehicle. You can surprise people by then stating an unexpected ground. Here are three uses for this trick:

You can use can choose an unexpected ground in order to call attention to the expected ground. Consider: “Tigers and people – we’re cute when we're young.” This calls attention to what we must be like when we're older, and implies that people are dangerous. This trick uses implied antithesis. By stopping after stating how we are when we are young, the listener is led to fill in the rest with the opposites. It is also a variety of irony. You don’t say what you mean, but the listener knows.

You can use can pick an unexpected ground to change the meaning of a cliché. Consider: “Speech is silver; silence, gold.” The obvious ground is how valuable they are. So instead say, “Speech is silver; silence, gold. You have to polish your silver,” and you have converted the cliché into advice on public speaking.

You can use can use an unexpected ground for humor. For example, “My love is a rose, and boy does she get prickly at times.”

Remember that you can emphasize our feelings about the tenor and the vehicle by using them as the ground, as in the refrain from a song by Tommy Thompson:

"You're my sweet maple sugar, honey, hot buttered rum."

The danger of using our feelings as ground is that we can easily use it to dehumanize people. The use of metaphor to dehumanize other people doesn’t require any objective ground. Remember the movie “Hotel Rwanda” with the radio broadcasts, “Tutsis are cockroaches.” The ground is the feelings of those using the metaphor towards the tenor, the people they are dehumanizing and the vehicle. We see it in ourselves referring to some criminals as “sexual predators” or “monsters,” associating them with dangerous animals. This allows us to go beyond just exploring the feelings. We can deal with them unfettered by the obligations we have toward other humans. There are people whose behavior needs to be discouraged, prevented, or stopped, but do we really need to dehumanize them to do it? These metaphors are a risk to our own humanity.

We have looked at ways to use metaphors and similes solely for the ground. We can simply emphasize the ground. We can exaggerate the ground for humor. We can choose an unexpected ground to call attention to the expected ground, to change the meaning of a cliché, or to surprise. Finally, we looked at using our feelings as the ground, which comes with significant risks.

Next issue we will look at how to use metaphors to transfer associations from the vehicle to the tenor.

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Thomas Christopher, Ph.D.: Seminars, Speeches, Consulting
1140 Portland Place #205, Boulder CO 80304, 303-709-5659,
Books through Prentice Hall PTR, albeit not related to wit: High-Performance Java Platform Computing, ISBN: 0130161640, Web Programming in Python, ISBN: 0-13-041065-9, Python Programming Patterns, ISBN: 0-13-040956-1