Language: with extra chilli sauce
‘Arrange the langoustines on top in a wigwam fashion’. This instruction caught my attention when I was cooking dinner the other night. I’ve never made a wigwam of langoustines before, but this was an admirably clear piece of stage direction. Of course, if the shellfish had been alive it might have been tricky. But as it was, the cooked langoustines perched together perfectly, holding claws on top of the risotto.
When I went to hear Roger Horberry give his ‘Pimp my Words’ talk at the Language Consultancy Association the following day, the langoustine wigwam matephor/simile* sprang to mind.
Soundbites from a Grand Sherpa
Roger says he’s an enthusiast rather than an expert on figures of speech, but frankly, that’s not true. As well as being a highly respected copywriter and prolific author, Roger is the Grand Sherpa of the Metaphor Mountain. The Purple Prince of Paradox. And quite possibly the High Priest of Hyperbole.
Here are a few soundbites from his talk:
- “Irony just is, whereas sarcasm usually has a purpose.”
- “Chiasmus adds instant profundity.” (Chiasmus uses mirroring e.g. ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going’.)
- “Paradox creates a mental double take. It makes you slam on the brakes.”
“Figures of speech are not widely appreciated or understood,” says Roger. “But they add spice and seasoning to our everyday words. They’re the chilli sauce of language.”
A thrilling journey from anadiplosis to zeugma
Roger took us on a whistle stop tour through figures of speech, from anadiplosis to zeugma (but not in that order). His talk was all about using language to create little jolts of verbal electricity to capture people’s attention.
We kicked off with zeugma, where a verb or adjective applies to two or more nouns. As when Uncle Fester from the Addams Family said: “I live in shame and the suburbs.”
Next up, anadiplosis – repeating the last word of a preceding clause to create a list. So we have Yoda saying: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
The third example was tmesis, where you split a word or phrase apart and add an extra word for comic effect. For example, “abso-bloody-lutely”.
Entry level word play
According to Roger, some figures of speech are relatively easy for anyone to pick up. His entry level figures include metaphor, simile and alliteration.
“Metaphors and similes are word pictures that are tailor-made to create striking images in a reader’s mind and pack plenty of meaning into a minuscule space, making them useful if your word count is restricted,” says Roger.
A metaphor makes an implicit comparison between two unconnected items. Recently, journalist Caitlin Moran described Twitter as the Electric River, which created a wonderful image of people throwing tweets into the water and watching as other people’s thoughts flowed past.
In contrast, a simile makes an explicit comparison between two unconnected items, and is usually signalled with the words ‘as’ or ‘like’. The best simile I’ve come across recently is “as happy as a rat with a gold tooth”.
Alliteration is the repetition of the initial consonant, as in ‘Guinness is good for you’, ‘Beanz meanz Heinz’ or, my favourite, ‘Fend off Flying Fish’ – an Illinois campaign about protecting yourself from jumping Asian carp.
Taking an idea for a walk
Roger showed us a wonderfully written example of prosopopoeia, more commonly known as personification, which involves attributing actions and character to inanimate objects.
In a series of ads for Penguin Books, punctuation marks come to life and become characters in short stories. The Three Ellipsis Sisters do everything together, but have a bad habit of leaving conversations hanging…
This reminded me of a brilliant story by my friend Sean Murphy. In The Tale of THE, a definite article decides to leave the safety of his own paragraph. His grandmother tells him he just needs to find a nice noun and settle down, but he ignores her and sets off to seek adventure outside the margins.
The power of two; the magic of three
Roger talked about so many figures of speech, it would be foolhardy to try to name them all. But let’s finish with parallelism, one of my personal favourites.
“Parallelism is the copywriter’s friend,” says Roger. “It involves presenting two or more parts of a sentence in a similar way to give the whole a well-defined, regular form.”
The bicolon is also known as ‘the rule of two’. Copywriters have used this form to create lines such as ‘Everything you want, nothing you don’t’ for Nissan and ‘Takes a licking and keeps on ticking’ for Timex.
The tricolon, or ‘rule of three’, is a powerful tool for any copywriter. Words, phrases and sentences in sets of three are memorable because they have a satisfying rhythm and sense of completeness. They can also have a natural linguistic timeline, encompassing a beginning, a middle and an end. Think of Caesar’s famous phrase – ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’.
“With a little imagination you can use parallelism to present a complex group of ideas in a way that doesn’t read like a list,” says Roger.
If you’d like to know more, check out Roger’s recent two-minute summary of figures of speech. Meanwhile, I’ll get on with the successor to my langoustine wigwam: a potted shrimp simile.
*A ‘langoustine wigwam’ is a metaphor, because you’re saying that the wigwam is literally made of langoustines. In the recipe, though, it’s a simile, because it asks you to arrange the langoustines in a ‘wigwam fashion’ – ‘like a wigwam’.