When Figurative Language Fails

figurative language

We love to use figurative language. It adds colour, interest and extra emphasis to points we want to make. When it’s wrongly applied, though, it ruins the image completely.

Unfortunately, speakers and writers like to copy phrases that have impressed them without thinking about what they really mean.

Here are three examples of figurative fails (from a long list):

‘You have to take the good with the bad’

This is just odd. It’s impossible to discover its origins but it’s quoted frequently – and attributed to various people from teen authors to rap singers – often with the extension ‘and the smile with the sad’, which is equally weird.

The two halves rhyme and perhaps that was the attraction.

The strangest thing I saw was the claim it was an ‘old English proverb’.

The correct expression is ‘You have to take the bad with the good’. It’s similar to ‘taking the rough with the smooth’ or ‘… the bitter with the sweet’.

The meaning is obvious. If you want the advantages of something, you might have to accept its flaws as well. To reverse it and imply you just might have to put up with a few positives is plain silly (or masochistic).

‘The icing on the cake’ and ‘The cherry on top’

These expressions refer to something positive that makes a good situation even better.

He gained top marks in every subject; the scholarship prize was the icing on the cake.
She had a baby boy, born on his grandfather’s birthday, which was the cherry on top.

The figurative fail comes when we use these expressions for negative situations that have become worse.

First I lost my job, then the dog died, and when I broke my arm it was the icing on the cake.

No it wasn’t. The figurative expression has to be negative, too, if the image is to succeed.
After those misfortunes, it might have been ‘the final nail in the coffin‘ or ‘the last straw‘.

‘The last straw’ might not sound negative but it’s a shorter form of ‘the last straw that broke the camel’s back‘.

More alternatives for other situations:
The tipping (or breaking) point
The final trigger
The spark that lit the fire
The match that lit the fuse

Gilding the lily

‘To gild the lily’ means to try to improve something that’s already beautiful enough or perfectly functional. There’s also the suggestion that the attempt spoils the original.

If someone were to add layers of cosmetics to an already flawless complexion, it would be ‘gilding the lily’. We could say the same about attempts to add unnecessary, flowery details to a simple and elegant piece of writing.

Writers almost always used these expressions wrongly, when trying to suggest that something imperfect is being disguised to appear better.

Examples of figurative fails:
His novel was tedious and boring; the exciting cover was just gilding the lily.
She really hated being there. The smiles and warm words were poor attempts to gild the lily.

The meaning in these sentences is wrong. The writer needs to use expressions such as:
It was all window dressing.
To put on a false (or fake) front.

For other contexts, similar expressions that are about covering up flaws or undesirable characteristics are:
It’s like putting lipstick on a pig.
It was mutton dressed up as lamb.
The facts were sugar-coated.
They are whitened sepulchres.
It’s all smoke and mirrors.

If you have others, I’d like to hear them.

For those who want detail, ‘to gild the lily’ is a misquotation of Shakespeare.
The original is:

To gild refined gold, to paint the lily
To throw a perfume on the violet
…. Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

[King John Act lV, sc.ii, 11-16]

After all, to gild refined gold – that is, to add a gold layer to pure gold – is about as pointless as it gets.

Find out more ways to Lift Your Language.

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