3 Mixed Metaphors Kill Your Cred

“And then it was like a light just went off in my head.”

Bright idea

Oh, I just had an idea. What if lines of chalk could represent rays of light and the whole thing could symbolize a new idea?

If you’ve ever read or listened to testimonials associated with self-help products or coaching programs, you’ve probably encountered this more than once.

Sometimes it’s part of a video testimonial and you can watch the person’s face light up with a thousand watts of energy as they pair the intensity of the feeling with an inexplicable verbal image of darkness.

I don’t know why the expunging of a light has become a dub-in for enlightenment, but it’s unholy.

Let’s not take away from those “a-ha” moments or the profound and lasting influence of having just the right coach or mentor at just the right time. I’m not going to sneer if it was Tony Robbins who helped you make a distinction in your life that has rescued you from depression while the Psy.D. psychologist you saw for three years could apparently do nothing. But what’s going on here in the language?

For centuries, educated people have engaged in and valued the kind of knowledge that passes through the channels of apprenticeship or mentoring, those abiding realizations that you can’t get from a book or before you’re ready. I’m talking here about deep personal knowledge that a mentor can spark in a pupil or protégé. And it sometimes ignites in a sudden flash of realization.

You don’t have to be a mystic to believe that knowledge is a living flame. You just need the experience of transferred wisdom and the awareness that all language is rooted in metaphor.

Sometimes we’re assembling knowledge below the threshold of consciousness and the right interaction with the sage in the right moment reveals a pattern that the student consciously recognizes for the first time. You’ve been doing the work for this new find yourself, but you didn’t know it.

For just as many centuries as we’ve written things down, educated cultures have likened these moments to getting more light in your life, not less. Reputedly, the dying words of Goethe were “The World Needs More Light.”

If a new realization rocks your world so much that it feels like a stick of dynamite going off, feel free to express it that way. But if the metaphor you choose produces more light than sound, I suggest that it’s better to have that light going on.

Since the days when the few people who could read would have used an oil lamp at night, terms like ‘enlightenment’ and ‘illumination’ have suggested both incandescence and knowing. Light isn’t knowledge any more than feeling “down” means that earth is evil and sky is good, but metaphors of this class are deeply ingrained.We violate or mix basic metaphors at great risk of unintended irony.

 “I didn’t tag along with Sally and John because I didn’t want to be a third wheel.”

Tricycles aren't just for little girls.

Tricycles aren’t just for little girls.

This is not a huge big deal and I know it’s going to sound a little fussy, but if you’re the third person on what should have been a date for two, you’re the “5th wheel.”

That’s the time-honored if slightly worn expression people are reaching for when they drift a little and get derailed by thinking of the actual number of people involved.

Just remember it’s a metaphor and not literal accounting. If you think of it in active use and not as a spare in the trunk, a 5th wheel would be awkward to the point of cartoon absurdity. A 3rd wheel might mean you own a tricycle.

“He is a brainchild.”

I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.

I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.

No. He is not a brainchild. He is a child with a brain. Regardless of how super-smart your son or your friend, he’s not a brainchild.

That noggin of his holds such capacities that it may well give birth to inter-dimensional travel or a cure for cancer or a game like Monopoly but nine times as complicated. Or better still: a game that involves jousting from the backs of giraffes.

That crazy thing which only his genius could spawn will be his brainchild.

The person himself will be a kind of parent.

Although, I must be gentle if comically exaggerated about this one. The repeated misuse I’ve encountered may be a limited anomaly or a regionalism. Also, the word “genius” was once used reverently to mean a kind of guardian spirit or muse that could favor your work or leave you cold, and over time it’s come to be applied directly to persons.

Likewise, “Frankenstein” now seems to mean not only the mad doctor but also his unlawful creation.

So I’ve got to fuss and nitpick here with a measure of circumspection and a glass of whiskey. The slippage to meaning persons instead of creations is probably only terrifying to language nerds like me.

What about you? Let’s hear your favorite language gripes in the comments below. And please share this article to Facebook and Twitter.

22 thoughts on “3 Mixed Metaphors Kill Your Cred

  1. Ha! The third wheel one reminds me of a bit on the show Supernatural, they tell the chronically literal character he will be a “third wheel” and he takes it as a compliment, explaining how a third wheel would add stability and other benefits to any two-wheeled vehicle.

  2. That sitcom scenario is also deeply ironic. It’s only a superficial difficulty to think of the 3rd person on a date as a 5th wheel. (Same expression could be used for the odd man out in an odd-numbered group of any size.)

    The original metaphor was clever and it’s gotten degraded through a kind of cultural literal-mindedness. The casual misunderstanding has been repeated so many times that people now wonder which is right.

    But it’s true that 3rd wheels bring real benefits. That’s why there’s a clear dumbing-down when people say it that way. Five is the smallest odd number of wheels that’s completely ridiculous.

    Therefore, your sitcom character who’s been deemed “chronically literal” is functioning in this one instance as foil against a culture of literal-mindedness. That’s irony, the highest form of humor.

  3. Concerning the “And then it was like a light just went off in my head” phrase, it has never occurred to me that it seemingly is the opposite of its intended meaning. And only you pointing it out here makes me realize that I have heard/read it in equal measure to the metaphor of lights coming on. And I’ve never had a problem with it, because for me the phrase has always conjured fireworks and flashbulbs, lights that go “off.”

    Because that always seems to be the context: “And then it was like, BAM! A light went off in my brain!” Like the instant of daylight during a lighting strike, the flash-in-the-pan idea, the brilliance there one instant… but almost always gone the next. And even if we now have a clear picture burned into our eyes and minds, and are heading in the right direction, we’re stumbling through the dark on our way there.

    I also appreciate the reverence in the idea that light/illumination/enlightenment is daunting, and while we are seeing things bright and anew in this light, we are stunned by it, and it is only when the light goes off that we can again move and act on this new knowledge. When lightning strikes, we pause. When fireworks pop, we gasp. And only when the light goes off can we appreciate what we’ve seen, unhold our breaths, and let go of our wonder.

    Or at the very least: during the flash, we pose and smile for the camera. But this really seems to be the sort of deeply entrenched idea, a synthesis of metaphors that predate our modern CFL bulbs and up at all hours of the night lifestlyes. It seems to speak to truths older than “And God said, let there be 100W… and there was, and it was GE.” Back to a time when the only lights that illuminated the night were brief flashes (because a metaphor about illumination is weak in the day) or at the very least tenuous and delicate (consider Hanukkah as the miracle of lights that did not go out) and not the consistent and guiding lights we have had for the past couple hundred years (certainly since the taming of electricity, the original flash) and just possibly, “a light going off in my mind” is not a simple oversight, as so many mixed-metaphors are.

    Then again, it is a dead metaphor and nearly cliche, so I doubt that it inspires these same thoughts in other people. And perhaps all this intense justification is unnecessary, for while I may understand the metaphor of “flashes of light = epiphanies” all they were trying to say was “I had an idea” and grabbing at this phrase (possibly missing part-way) because they hadn’t one of their own.

    But in any event, thank you for the post, it gave me something else to occupy my afternoon besides wondering just how much awe is awesome? And how full of awe do you have to be before it is truly awful.

    • That’s an interesting take on the topic, Clint. You may be right about the “light went off” metaphor having it’s grounding in more explosive or less controlled sources of illumination. Fireworks. Pre-modern or even primordial things, like lightning. But I think of the best benefits of intellectual or spiritual enlightenment as requiring sustained study and personal effort. The sudden flash is dazzling but less substantial or nourishing. Also, if you think of how long we’ve used tallow to make candles or burned whale oil in a lamp or harnessed natural gas for light and heat–the ability to elucbrate all night was imperfect and sometimes costly in previous centuries, but it’s quite a bit older than GE.

      Still – very good counterpoints to consider. And thanks for sharing so much reflection on the topic.

      The word ‘awesome’ had a decidedly different connotation a hundred years ago and before then. It was used much less frequently and probably whispered, because awe is the proper response to being in the presence of the sacred and the overwhelming. If we encountered aliens with 1,000 times our knowledge and technological prowess–yet they were merciful and totally benevolent toward us–a kind of awe would be appropriate. It’s like total fear and incomprehension, except combined with calmness, reassurance, and acceptance–a set of balances that keeps your animal brain from running away with you. For any kind of language purist, contemporary usage is greatly cheapened down.

  4. Recently, I’ve encountered this (3 times so far) in fiction: The room went silent as the girl in black began to speak, and suddenly, all ears were on her. I know what they mean, but 1) If someone is speaking then it is not silent. 2) Don’t treat ears as you would eyes. Eyeballs can move, shift, or roll to what they want to see and focus on. Ears don’t move. That’s a sentence that just makes everything creepy with motion that never was. I hate it when writers glaze over listening, sound, and/or resonance.

    • Yes, two biggies here:
      1. “As” implies simultaneity where there is actually a sequence. The room was silent. Then the girl in black began to speak.
      2. Don’t treat *any* body parts as though capable of doing weird and autonomous things. Even an old gem like: “Her eyes rolled around the room” is flawed with unintentional humor, because we can’t prevent a portion of the reader’s mind from performing a literal interpretation.

      • Basiu, cudne, cudne pÄ…czki i chrust też! Choć i jedno i drugie jadÅ‚am parÄ™ dni temu w nadmiarze, nie oparÅ‚abym siÄ™ tym Twoim:) Wybrj³puÃÄ™ w przyszÅ‚ym roku!

      • On the TED web site (ted.com/talks), click on a video, then click on the Embed options for that video. The embed section has a WordPress shortcode generated for the video you selected.

      • JB Did you notice number 15?“15. I advocate moving our currency to a debt free supply-side labor based currency.”Read this out loud and the man wanted to know who was quoting Karl Marx. This looks to be lifted from “The Labour Theory of Value” IHHO or Das Kapital for those unfamiliar with the man’s oeuvre. (I don’t think it is really but I don’t care enough to look it up. I’d rather have fun.)Teabaggers are Marxists! Can I write the headline now?

      • Hi David,Family Tree Maker program 2011 has a great feature where you can search by PLACES so I did a search. And yes, my ancestor John James and his wife Lucy Mosby did live in Buckingham County, VA for a short time betweem 1783-1786. They had their 3rd child John Jr. while living there. You can read more about the John James that lived in Buckingham on my website at Is there any more information I can give you on this James family?Regards,Elaine

  5. I like to play with the old aphorism, “That’s like comparing apples and oranges.” In my high school english classes I taught comparison/contrast using that saying. You’ll find many similarities between those two types of fruit.

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