Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Twinned Sources Meet Novel Target

Habitués of the Language Lounge will know that metaphor is a subject I turn to often. Metaphor plays a fundamental role in how we make sense of the world and how we integrate new information with things we already know. This month I’ve been looking at a specialized metaphor that we’ve all heard and surely some of us have used. To fully understand the metaphor you need comprehensive knowledge of two domains.

Twin-domain knowledge is actually required for all metaphors: we need to understand both the source and the target domain to understand what qualities of the former apply to the latter. But in the case of my metaphor of interest, the domains are quite information rich and so I’m curious to examine how it is that we understand it, when we do.

Let’s go back to high school, where perhaps we studied the poem “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes to learn about metaphor. It begins with these lines:

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.  
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.  
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,  
And the highwayman came riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

In line two, once we learned the word galleon we knew to transfer the movement of a sailing ship on a stormy sea to the appearance of the moon, and we knew not to transfer some other things about ships and the sea: abundance of saltwater, possibility of seasickness, risk of shark attacks, etc. In line three, when the road is likened to a ribbon, we transfer the shape of the ribbon alone and we don’t worry about its color or what fabric it is made from. In both these metaphors, we simply apply intuitively what seems to apply, and leave behind the rest.

Now here are a couple of examples of the metaphor that interests me. It’s marked by the presence of meets connecting two noun phrases:

It's set in Los Angeles in the year 2007 and ropes in sex, drugs, religion, virtual reality, holograms and rhinos. Twin Peaks meets Doctor Who.

His style is essentially Le Corbusier meets Flash Gordon, cool enough to impress the architects but seductive enough to touch a popular chord too.

I expect the inspiration for the metaphor is in tropes like “boy meets girl”, “East meets West”, “history meets modernity” and the like, which we use to lay the groundwork for the consequence of a blending of two preexisting things. In the metaphors I’m looking at, the proposed meeting is between two genres of literature, two artists (often writers), two films–in all cases, two names that can conjure fairly complex symbolic worlds.

So the question is, how do we know what to transfer to get the metaphor? What makes metaphors like this work, when they do? Unlike standard metaphor, in which we transfer knowledge in one domain to another, here we have two metaphor sources (those named in the meets sentence) and one target, which is left to the listener or reader to conceive: the idea or thing that results from the marriage of these two. Essentially we are asked to cognitively blend elements of two things in order to conceive a third that will be a novelty.

Though there is nothing particularly scary about this, we would do well here to heed Mr. Rogers’s advice: look for the helpers. In the two examples I’ve given above you can see there is contextualizing information about the metaphor: before it in one case, after it in the other. As I study these metaphors in corpora, an unsurprising pattern emerges: hardly anyone makes such a metaphor without guiding their audience toward what it is they should transfer. In the first example, both sources are TV series so it’s obvious to the listener that the resulting target is another (possible) TV series. The second example compares a famous architect with a comic strip character, so of course more guidance is needed, and the writer supplies it: combine the archetypal style of the architect with the popular appeal of the comic strip character.

Here’s another example that pretty much lays bare the MO of this kind of metaphor:

. . . her first bestseller in the 1930s, with its uncouth love affair set amongst smugglers, shipwreck and storm-tossed moors, R. L. Stevenson meets Emily Bronte.

If we have sufficient domain knowledge, the writer has told us exactly what they mean: extract the uncouth love affair from Wuthering Heights and place it in the context of Treasure Island. It’s a clever metaphor, but it places a heavy cognitive load on the reader, who must have a fairly comprehensive knowledge of English literature to make the connection. Is it fair to put such a burden on your readers? I think you can get away with that only when you know your readers very well.

Here’s an example of the metaphor type that doesn’t work for me:

Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman, CBS's Saturday night hit, which CBS chief Howard Stringer says he has sold ITV for $200,000 an episode. It's Little House On The Prairie meets Highway To Heaven.

Though I never watched “Little House on the Prairie”, I know about Laura Ingalls Wilder and her books that inspired the series, so that part works. But Highway to Heaven? I don’t know what that is, and parsing it literally doesn’t help me much. Here’s another example that for me is only half successful:

I couldn't help feeling uneasy about the terms in which the supposedly enriching friendship between Gwendolyn and Mavis was cast . . . though Verster strove to avoid a Lady Bountiful meets Uncle Tom tone.

The writer draws on disparate sources which readers may know only indirectly: an 18th-century British play and a 19th-century American novel. Clearly, they have a very educated and well-read audience in mind, which perhaps you can assume in a book review, but I still have trouble putting together what would have resulted from Lady Bountiful meeting Uncle Tom.

Here’s one I like, from a work of fiction. I like it because the source domains are familiar, but also because the writer spells out, after the metaphor, exactly what we are to take away:

“So what do you want in a man?”
“Butch. Beautiful. Brilliant. Captain America meets Albert Schweitzer. Spends all day dashing into fray while making the world safe for democracy. At night, playing Bach cantatas while curing cancer.”

It seems to me that the success of these metaphors depends on beginning with well-known sources and then extracting from them what is most typical. There is still plenty of room for invention because the domains are quite information rich.

So here’s a challenge for you. Choose one of the source domains below and, in the comments, make a metaphor that combines this source with another and gives us enough guidance to know what we should transfer. Or if you’re feeling extremely creative, combine two of these into a single metaphor. Elf on a Shelf meets Edgar Allan Poe and . . . !

Lady Gaga meets . . .
Elf on a Shelf meets . . .
Pulp Fiction meets . . .
Edgar Allan Poe meets . . .

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.