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Man reading war news aboard streetcar. San Francisco, California

[Detail] Reading war news aboard streetcar. San Francisco, California

Using Metaphors to Convey Meaning

Webster's Dictionary defines a metaphor as "a figure of speech in which a word or phrase denoting one kind of object or action is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them." Metaphors often appear in literature, as the novelist, poet, or biographer seeks to develop the reader's understanding in lively and thought-provoking language. Metaphors also appear in everyday speech, however, as people like those interviewed in the After the Day of Infamy collection try to convey shades of meaning or tickle their listeners' funny-bones.

Below are three examples of metaphors from the collection, used to describe some aspect of the conflict being experienced by the United States:

"Bill Grumbles: So many folks around here Mr. Roosevelt thought that you was scared of old Hitler for the longest, but course I never did. I always told them like this, I said 'Why just like old hound dog was about the pole cat [skunk].' He knows he supposed to shake the daylights out of him, but he just needs go in there and grab him and get the stink all over him [laughs]."

From "Dear Mr. President", Granbury, Austin, Hood County, and Fletcher County, Texas, January or February 1942 (AFS 6434B)

"Tom K. Ritchie: I don't agree with your reference to the enemy as rattlesnakes because rattlesnakes are too much, have too much of the gentlemen in them. They should be referred to as copperheads, crawl on their belly, camouflage, and carrying a deadly poison that is silent and strikes without any warning whatever.

There are at this time so many things to do that I think others feel like you do and they should be given an opportunity to help you put the heel on the head of these serpents. They should be crushed and I think the only [way (?)] and the only manner in which they can be handled properly is by direct action. Nothing theatrical, no play acting, simply ruthless force without any squeamishness and without any feeling that we are doing other than killing snakes. And when we clean out a nest of snakes we not only kill the father snake, we kill the mother snake and we break their eggs."

From "Dear Mr. President", Tucson, Arizona, January or February 1942 (AFS 6448B)

"Secretary: I taught country school in my youth where the principal problem was discipline and it was a matter we had to deal with without any outside help beyond a stout hickory stick or the stove poker.

I remember trying to placate the measly little bully who just upset the whole school, and I also remember that it never worked. Sooner or later came the showdown. We've been doing the same thing nationally. We have said, 'Now Jappy, you be a nice boy and we'll give you a gun which you can shoot real bullets with, but don't shoot that nice little Chink, he's a good kid. Just go out and play with the target, but be a good boy, just be a good boy. Everybody'll love you, we'll give you more presents, we'll give you airplanes, and oil and stuff.'And now, dear little Jappy has kicked teacher in the shins and something must be done about it."

From "Man-on-the-Street", Madison, Wisconsin, December 9, 1941 (AFS 6367B)

  • What metaphor did Bill Grumbles use? What reaction does the metaphor provoke in you as a reader?
  • What metaphor did Tom K. Ritchie use? What is the effect of comparing one's enemy to an animal? Can a speaker say things through metaphor that he/she might not say directly? Explain your answer.
  • What metaphor did the secretary from Madison, Wisconsin, use? What meaning does the metaphor convey?
  • How are the three metaphors similar? How are they different? Which do you think conveys the speaker's meaning best? Why?