Mixed Metaphors

October 20, 2014

Idiomatic expressions can be tricky for non-native speakers. Consider the following examples:

Nous sommes comme les doigts de la main. (French) This phrase literally translates to “We are like the fingers of the hand.” Huh? English equivalent: We are like two peas in a pod.

Bien águila (Spanish) Translation: Sharp eagle. English equivalent: smart cookie

As if learning a new language was not difficult enough, idiomatic expressions like these are found in every language and their non-literal meanings are often intelligible only to a particular area or nation. Even if people become fluent in a new language, they still may not necessarily be proficient at interpreting idioms.

Perhaps more difficult than idiomatic expressions are mixed metaphors. Metaphors themselves are a types of figurative (non-literal) language that require readers to understand connections between items being compared. An example of metaphor is “Her thoughts are spider webs.” Confused thoughts are being compared to spider webs because both can be tangled. In mixed metaphors, these connections are not always clear and sometimes even border on the ridiculous! Mixed metaphors combine two or more metaphors and often make very little sense – even to native speakers of a language. Some examples:

"I don’t think we should wait until the other shoe drops. History has already shown what is likely to happen. The ball has been down this court before and I can see already the light at the end of the tunnel." (Detroit News, quoted in The New Yorker, November 26, 2012)

This mixed metaphor strangely combines “when the other shoe falls,” “the ball is in your court,” and “the light at the end of the tunnel.” The writer jumps from one metaphor to another.

Here’s another:

“When life throws you curve balls, make lemonade.” (Earle Dukes Roberts III)

In this example, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” is combined with a baseball metaphor. The meaning is understandable, but the reader must understand both metaphors.

The famous New York Yankee “Yogi” Berra may have been as well-known for using mixed metaphors as for his baseball playing ability. His comments on two separate occasions that "90% of the game is half mental” and “"Baseball is ninety percent mental; the other half is physical” involve some very interesting math!

Even President Barack Hussein Obama, Jr. is sometimes guilty of using mixed metaphors. In his inaugural address, he said, "As we consider the road that unfolds before us..." He is describing an interesting future for our nation indeed – one that includes strange folding and unfolding highways....

Don’t worry if you are not the brightest brick, there may be a very good reason that you don’t understand what people around you are saying! (“brightest bulb” and “two bricks short of a load”)

Some examples in this article were found on the following websites:


by Erin Hanna