In one of his earliest essays, Walker Percy expounded a theory of “Metaphor as Mistake,” and it is true that many insights, not all of them metaphorical, can arise from misunderstanding or, as happens to me more frequently these days, mishearing what someone has said. A psychiatrist friend, back about 1970, told me of a new treatment he had read about for certain kinds of neurotics. The idea seemed brilliant: Treat the neurotics, all too often self-indulgent manipulators, by responding to the actual words they use, rather than to the intentions they are indirectly trying to convey.
Imagine, the next time your whining girlfriend, disappointed that you are not going to the most expensive place in town, says, “After all, maybe we really shouldn’t go out tonight.”
“Great. Go rustle up some grub, woman.”
Or think how much fun it would be to respond directly to all the buried and half-dead metaphors in everyday American English, such as “You need to leap on the opportunity,” or “Over my dead body,” or “Give me a break.”
More serious means may need to be applied to politicians who use words they do not understand. When Bill Clinton was pondering the meaning of is, he spoke of “parsing his sentences,” as if parse meant something like “refine upon the meaning” or “use...