Uses and Abuses of Figurative Language, Donald Trump Edition

from left to right Chris Matthews, Hillary Clinton, Edward Snowden, Vladimir Putin, Julian Assange, Donald Trump. Anderson Cooper

from left to right Chris Matthews, Hillary Clinton, Edward Snowden, Vladimir Putin, Julian Assange, Donald Trump. Anderson Cooper


“Figures of speech are spices that add zest to language,” a tired textbook author might write.

But even though the previous sentence lazily relies on a stale metaphor, it’s still more pleasurable to read than “Figures of speech are words and phrases used in other than their literal sense, or in other than their ordinary locutions, in order to suggest a picture or image or for other special effect.’”[1]

Here’s the great American poet Richard Wilbur on the subject:


Praise in Summer

by Richard Wilbur

Obscurely yet most surely called to praise,

As summer sometimes calls us all, I said

The hills are heavens full of branching ways

Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead;

I said the trees are mines in air, I said

See how the sparrow burrows in the sky!

And then I wonder why this mad instead

Perverts our praise to uncreation, why

Such savor’s in this wrenching things awry.

Does sense so stale that it must needs derange

The world to know it? To a praiseful eye

Should it not be enough of fresh and strange

That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay,

And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day?

In the octave of this sonnet, Wilbur, via metaphors, reverses the natural order, turning “hills” into “sky” and “moles” into “birds” that fly/burrow over the bones beneath them. He then reverses the mirror and transforms a “tree” into a “mine” and “sparrows” into “moles.”

In the sestet, he laments that even the most miraculous aspects of nature eventually bore us, so we end up through figurative language “perverting” what should by themselves fascinate us in their natural state — things of wonder like green trees, moles, and sparrows. Oddly enough, after questioning the need for figurative language, Wilbur paradoxically ends the poem with a metaphor as “sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day” — though at least the metaphor reflects the world in its correct orientation with the sky above and the ground below.

Because, as Wilbur notes, “figures of speech “wrench things awry,” their use can lead to misunderstanding. For example, if you don’t read much poetry, you might find “Praise for Summer” baffling, if not incomprehensible.

Problems can also arise when the less perceptive among us take figurative language literally, as Donald Trump claimed last week in his controversy du semaine.

In case you’re just emerging from solitary confinement, Trump made a literal accusation about the origins of ISIS and then tried to claim, post shitstorm, that he didn’t mean what he had said literally. He then cast the folks at CNN as dullards incapable of appreciating his use of irony.

Allow me to render his accusation in verse as I might if I were quizzing my high school students.

Barack and Hillary founded ISIS,

So they are to blame for our current crisis.

Identify the figure of speech found in the couplet:

A.understatement   B. verbal irony (sarcasm)   C. synecdoche   D. hyperbole

The correct answer is D. Trump wasn’t employing sarcasm; he didn’t mean to convey that Obama and Hillary didn’t create ISIS by stating the opposite. If he meant the accusation figuratively (which I doubt), he was waxing hyperbolic – exaggerating – suggesting that Obama and Clinton’s mismanagement of foreign affairs led to the rise of the so-called Islamic State, thus making them de facto founders of ISIS. That he mocks others for not getting his sarcasm when he isn’t being sarcastic is worthy of sarcasm. Like we used to say in the 7th grade, “Smooth move, X-Lax.”

[cue Alanis Morrisette’s “Ironic”]

At any rate, you Republicans out there can surely lament that Trump lacks the verbal acuity of Ronald Reagan, who as deftly as Richard Wilbur turned language topsy-turvy, calling ICBMs “peace keepers” and taxes “revenue enhancers,” but then Reagan, who hand-wrote his own letters, was a voracious reader, which Trump obviously is not.

[1] Via



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