Wordsmith.org: the magic of words


About | Media | Search | Contact  


Today's Word

Yesterday's Word



Aug 4, 2008
This week's theme
Metaphorical descriptions of people

This week's words
paper tiger
loose cannon
sacred cow
dark horse

Send a gift that
keeps on giving,
all year long:
A gift subscription of A.Word.A.Day or the gift of books
Bookmark and Share Facebook Twitter Digg MySpace Bookmark and Share
with Anu Garg

Guest Wordsmith Mardy Grothe (drmgrothe aol.com) writes:

Whenever people describe one thing in terms of something else, they are engaging in metaphorical thinking (as when Shakespeare wrote, "All the world's a stage"). When people speak metaphorically, they make a connection between two conceptual domains that, at first glance, don't appear to have much in common with each other. A metaphor is a kind of magical mental changing room, where one thing, for a moment, becomes another, and in that moment is seen in a whole new way.

A popular recent metaphor is carbon footprint. There's no intrinsic relationship between the amount of energy one consumes and the size of one's foot, but as soon as this metaphor was coined, it immediately replaced the previous metaphor on the subject (energy hog). When Howard Cosell said, "Sports is the Toy Department of Life", he helped us look at the sporting world in a fresh and highly original way. Comedian Paul Reiser did the same thing when he once looked over at his wife breastfeeding their first child and thought to himself, "What was once an entertainment center has become a juice bar."

Robert Frost said, "An idea is a feat of association, and the height of it is a good metaphor." Metaphorical thinking is one of the oldest activities of humankind, and one of the most useful when it captures essential features of certain types of people, as in terms like stool pigeon, stalking horse, rainmaker, or the first water. This week we explore metaphorical descriptions of people.

(Dr. Mardy Grothe is a psychologist, author, platform speaker, and quotation anthologist. His most recent book is I Never Metaphor I Didn't Like: A Comprehensive Compilation of History's Greatest Analogies, Metaphors, and Similes to be published this week. For more, go to drmardy.com.)

paper tiger

(PAY-puhr TY-guhr)

One who is outwardly strong and powerful but is in fact powerless and ineffectual.

Loan translation of Chinese zhi lao hu, from zhi (paper) + lao hu (tiger).
The term is often used to describe countries. In 1956, Chairman Mao of China applied it to the US. Later it was used in the Western press to refer to China and its economy.

"But will it be another Arab paper tiger? 'I don't think much can be accomplished by merely meeting at an annual conference and issuing a list of recommendations,' Abu Zeid agrees."
Hadia Mostafa; A River Runs Through It; Egypt Today (Cairo); Jul 12, 2004.

See more usage examples of paper tiger in Vocabulary.com's dictionary.

An age is called Dark not because the light fails to shine, but because people refuse to see it. -James Albert Michener, novelist (1907-1997)

We need your help

Help us continue to spread the magic of words to readers everywhere


Subscriber Services
Awards | Stats | Links | Privacy Policy
Contribute | Advertise

© 1994-2024 Wordsmith