The Lost Art of the Colorful Metaphor


This may be about as interesting as watching windshield wipers wipe, but I’ve always had a thing for language.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve reveled in learning new words — not just their meaning, but the sound of them, too. Sometimes a familiar word will catch in my ear in a new way and I’ll roll it around in my mouth a little just to appreciate the sound.

I’ve never thought that the language used to describe the news should be dull. Sober often, and dignified when called for, but serious does not have to mean dull. As a boy, I listened as Edward R. Murrow painted vivid and detailed word pictures in his reports from London during the Blitz, using language that conveyed not just the facts but also the feel of events.

Television, however, was a more cautious medium in its earlier days. On one election night about 40 years ago, I could see I had given the executive producer a little jolt when I reported from the election center’s Midwest desk that a tight governor’s race was a “barn burner.”

This country has a long history of memorable writing and speaking on politics, a legacy that harks back to H.L. Mencken, Will Rogers, Mark Twain. My own humble efforts are an attempt to acknowledge this tradition and possibly add what little bit I can.

You can do it, too: Start your own personal insurrection against cliche. The next time you have something to describe, try reaching for the interesting or unusual point of metaphorical comparison. Don’t be afraid; the language won’t break. Who knows? If we all start doing it, American English could become as fun as Saturday night at the Stop ‘n’ Fight.

Create Your Own Colorful Expression!

Mix and match some of Dan Rather’s favorite words to add texture to your mournfully bland speech. First, choose one of Rather’s preferred adjectives or verbs (eat, tight, hot, squalid, doing back flips, shaky, mow the lawn, long, bark). Pair it with one of his choice nouns (frog, hippopotamus, car ride, buzzard, Jell-O, bathing suit, tall talking broccoli, handgun, squirrel in a cage). You’ll end up with something like “tight as a too-small bathing suit on a too-long car ride,” which is real vintage Rather.

Written for Esquire magazine (posted here with permission).

“The difference between love and sex is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

One thought on “The Lost Art of the Colorful Metaphor

  1. Dear Mr. Rather,

    On November 22nd, 1963 my late father learned of JFK’s assassination via your reporting. I was very young at the time, however, I was aware that our President had been killed. All Americans, as well as the rest of the world, were glued to their televisions (if they had one) during those tragic days.

    My daddy was never a Walter Cronkite fan, but he would wait to see if one of your segments was going to air. He would stay with CBS until your report had aired – then he would switch to ‘Huntley and Brinkley.’ Cronkite never got much ‘play’ in our home. When he retired and you took over as the anchor of the CBS Evening News we were loyal to CBS.

    There are two events in particular that kept me glued to your coverage. During the Gulf War I was at home recovering from a badly broken leg and I watched your daily 3pm reports. As a matter of fact, I watched the entire war with you! I could have changed the channel, but Dan Rather had become so ingrained in my mind, I could not settle for anything less.

    On 9/11/2001, I was in the last group of commuters from New Jersey to make it out of the PATH station. I missed the first plane by minutes. We had limited access to television at the outset, however, after I was evacuated from my office located three blocks away and finally made it home, I watched your coverage of that tragic event.

    Your coverage was comforting to me not only because you are a journalist who always tells it as it is, but also because my late father trusted you and he was also supplier to the construction of the World Trade Center. He had passed ten years earlier and I know he would have suffered from that event not only due to the profound loss of life, but because he was so proud of having had something to do with the construction of those magnificent twin towers.

    To this day I miss seeing the World Trade Center when I look out my living room windows. I will never get used to the change in the skyline. I am no longer loyal to CBS. I do not watch any of the programming – I couldn’t even tell you what is airing on CBS. In my opinion, Katie Couric simply does not have the journalistic ‘chops’ required for that job and she annoyed me when she was on the ‘Today’ show and she would annoy me even further as the anchor of the CBS Evening News.

    I am pleased that continue traveling around the world to get the truth of what is happening regarding the abominable, illegal war in Iraq, You have always been tops in my book. I don’t wear cowboy hats, however, I do rescue horses so I tip my riding helmet to you sir!


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