"One has to regard a man as a Master," said Evelyn Waugh of PG Wodehouse, "who can produce on average three uniquely brilliant and entirely original similes on every page".
He’s right, as Waugh often was. A selection of the Jeeves and Wooster author’s better-known turns of phrase might include the following:
“[She] looked as if she had been poured into her clothes and had forgotten to say ‘when’.”
“I started back to the house, and in the drive I met Jeeves. Beside him, looking like a Scotch elder rebuking sin, was the dog Bartholomew.”
“I’d always thought him half-baked, but now I think they didn’t even put him in the oven.”
Hillaire Belloc was a particular fan of Wodehouse’s writing in general and his metaphors and similes in particular. His favourite was Wodehouse’s description of Honoria Glossop as “one of those robust, dynamic girls with the muscles of a welterweight and a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge.”
These descriptions are vivid enough to stick in the mind, and yet, as Waugh said, there are often three to a page. The overall effect is one of such comic depth, such unremitting skill, that Wodehouse came to be described as ‘The Master’.
But it isn’t just novels that benefit from vivid imagery and metaphors. Speeches do too. In fact many of the most memorable speeches, both real and fictional, use similar figures of speech as a central part of their impact.
The entire Gettysburg Address is one long metaphor about life, beginning with birth (“fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty”), continuing through death (“a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives”) and circling round to life again (“this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom”). Though the Address is only 270 words long, it couched the upcoming battle in terms of the continuity – even transcendence – of the nation. The metaphor of birth and rebirth is powerful. Presidents, Prime Ministers and CEOs use it all the time, to cultivate a sense of progress and almost parental pride among their countrymen or their staff. But those metaphors, like all figures of speech, are only ever truly successful if they’re either intense, funny, dramatic, unexpected or well-judged enough to be memorable.
It can be difficult, but it’s possible to use metaphors so memorable that they expand beyond their original setting and enter the public consciousness.
“Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears.”
“I have a dream.”
“One small step for man…a giant leap for mankind”
That last one is a particularly interesting example. Neil Armstrong and his wife came up with the line, but their scripted version had Armstrong saying “one giant leap for a man”, and for years afterwards both insisted that this was the version that Armstrong came out with in that famous recording. Could it be that the apparent omission of ‘a’ made the metaphor even more striking, by blurring the meaning of the statement and making it more mysterious, perhaps even more fitting for such a mind-boggling achievement as landing on the moon? It’s impossible to know. But what we can say is that Armstrong’s slight omission is now one of the most famous phrases in human history.
Wodehouse’s metaphors might never reach that level of appreciation. But they do teach speakers and speechwriters that lively and characterful prose is far more memorable than another bland and colourless succession of facts, assertions and opinions. Audiences can’t help it: their ears always prick up when they listen to metaphor.