Floating on a sea of misplaced metaphors
In the event, however, the whole thing felt more like “fiscal quicksand”, to pick another frequent plot device from action movies of yore, with politicians on both sides of the aisle becoming increasingly stuck in their positions as time wore on, their only hope a vine of compromise that lay just outside of their reach until after their heads were already submerged.
Of course, any such naming of complex events will involve radical simplification, but that’s why it’s so important to settle on a metaphor that’s fit for purpose. The fabled “credit crunch” that began to pass the lips of regular people back in 2007 sounds like a type of expensive, sugary breakfast cereal, rather than the first rumbling indications that the entire edifice of global finance was at risk of collapse.
Closer to home, the word “bailout” fails almost entirely to capture the convoluted financial arrangements that have lead to Irish taxpayers paying for Irish banking debt under the guidance of the troika. “Bailout” sounds like an act of charity or kindness; the reality, unfortunately, doesn’t feel like it. Thus, our “bailout” sits at the intersection of metaphor and euphemism, failing as the former and succeeding all too well as the latter.
More recently, people tried to wrap their collective heads around something called the “God particle”, despite entire hadron colliders full of physicists strenuously imploring us not to be so facile when describing the Higgs boson. In that case, I strongly suspect that nobody knew what it meant anyway, but “God particle” at least sounded important enough to build a vast subterranean atom smasher to search for it.
And soon we will be enjoying yet another Washington melodrama, the sequel to last year’s smash hit, the “debt ceiling crisis”. In some ways, this is even more misleading than the fiscal cliff – ceilings that are traditionally raised a few feet on an annual basis to accommodate more storage space and the like are a rare architectural feature.
Understanding our world isn’t easy, but we make it unnecessarily more complicated by choosing and using poor metaphors to describe and explain it. It’s not a deliberate process, by and large, but it’s one we should pay attention to. Otherwise, if we’re not careful, we’ll find ourselves drowning in an ocean of misplaced metaphors.
Shane Hegarty is on leave