The Metaphor: Hurricane Rita’s First Victim

Wolf Blitzer’s better-off-dead metaphor…

CNN is, by its own account, the “most trusted source for news”. Arguably true. But don’t turn your back on their metaphors for one second.

In the past thirty-odd years, health nuts have preyed on smokers, overeaters and the stressed as easy pickens for one of our most preventable killers: the heart attack. An easy target, since smoking, eating and stress are far more controllable than genetics or bad luck. Jogging gear, special diets and antistress toys sold like bananas as marketing monkeys went wild and pounded us with images of longer life, happiness and virility. Billboards offering “Cinnamon buns” were replaced with billboards offering to “tighten buns”.

By this year, heart attacks have become the core of an entire industry, with sales of household defibrillators growing in much the same way as smoke detectors did decades ago. Drug ads are now ubiquitous cultural backdrops, as are zipper-chested surgical survivors, and junior-father David Letterman’s Explod-O-Pop heart is still on the Late Show beat, even after a formerly “he’s a goner” quintuple bypass.

The causes of heart attack are many, but it suffices to say that it is a breakdown of the central pump of an animal circulatory system. It results in a transportation problem, directly affecting either delivery, pick-up or both. We often use a metaphor of the “engine of the body” to describe the heart, and vice-versa, but this is a factual misstatement: the heart does not convert energy for general use in the body, it is only the motor that drives a liquid conveyor belt full of materials that build and power other engines. The heart is the engine of the circulatory system.

Notice that I didn’t say it was the “fuel pump” of the circulatory system.

To test this, we need to extend it. The engine drives a pumping mechanism, which sends blood through chambers, then valves, and into the pipes that carry the material bearing fluid to other regions. The engine itself, made of muscle, is powered by fuel contained in packages that has been shipped from their production area back to the engine. If all this engine propelled was fuel, it would be a fuel pump, but it is not. It ships anything that is in the liquid, whether fuel, materials or waste. The heart is the central figure in the entire shipping industry of the body.

A shipping worker strike, then, would cause a heart attack. So do roadbreaks and roadblocks. Narrow roads or reduced traffic would impede transportation, affecting production through reduced supply. Not good for a general economy, since laborers need the fuel/food that is carried via the transportation system. Of course, should fuel supplies begin to dwindle, we might see less vital aspects of the economy suffer, and a rationing of supplies for only the most important parts. Finally, should fuel supplies dwindle far enough, the pump is pumping empty containers of fuel to itself, and stops working.

In an impossibly petroprognostic tone, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer announced yesterday, September 22nd, 2005, at roughly 3pm, in the Situation Room, that a direct hit on vital Texas oil refineries by Rita would result in an “energy heart attack”. This metaphor was D.O.A. – a figurative language-soaked victim of the storm-surged airwaves. The toe-tag read: “Better-Off-Dead Metaphor. DO NOT RESUSCITATE. Energy does not have a heart, and therefore does not suffer heart attacks.”

The oddly rambling toe tag went on to read: “The energy sector, however, does have a heart, as is demonstrated by its selfless environmentalism, countless humanitarian acts and understated participation in the peace process, and therefore would indeed suffer a heart attack – however poetic – if its central pumping mechanism in Texas were to shut down.”

So there we have it, literally the first casualty of Hurricane Rita is a metaphor. Still, before we deep-six this clunker, we should take a moment to reflect on its unfortunate, luckily short life: the use of the metaphor “energy heart attack” serves to remind us that heart attacks continue to register on the charts of social consciousness. Not prevented in full, nor cured in full, but in the midst of unfolding that special blossom of promise, they have captivated our interest now, and for only now. Let this tombstone serve as a benchmark in contemporary metaphor usage – a reminder that where we are is written in the very words we choose.

J.D. Casnig
(Photos courtesy of Wikipedia).

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