Mixing metaphors

Climate change is a serious matter, but that doesn’t mean that the way we describe it cannot be a cause for hilarity. This example is from the Guardian newspaper, which reported today on the ambitious goals outlined in a new UN report on combatting global warming.

The Guardian is of course renowned for its typos and otherwise generally sloppy proofreading, as immortalized in an episode of the Young Ones, where Rick summons a demon from the underworld by inadvertently reciting its name, Ftumch, while reading aloud from the newspaper.

In this case, however, it is not the Guardian itself but the interviewee, Debra Roberts, who offends the ear with a mangled series of mixed metaphors. Discussing the need to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5 C, Ms Roberts remarks:

It’s a line in the sand and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now . . . This is the largest clarion bell from the science community and I hope it mobilises people and dents the mood of complacency.

First, a ‘line in the sand’ can represent a point of no return, to be sure, but to continue the metaphor, it is to be crossed, or in this case withdrawn from, but it is hardly capable of giving the kind of advice that Ms Roberts attributes to it. Ms Robert then continues by stating that the line is in fact a bell, and not any bell but a clarion bell. Clarion is an unusual word these days, but what it actually refers to is a medieval trumpet used for calling the troops into battle: hence the expression ‘clarion call’; i.e. a call to arms. Thus, here Ms Roberts not only mixes her metaphors but also her musical instruments.

Had ‘clarion call’ been used instead of ‘clarion bell’, what follows next would have been more acceptable, but the image of a bell mobilising the troops seems odd. After all, bells have traditionally called the faithful to worship not to war. Finally, however, the bell does something more; it not only mobilises but it ‘dents the atmosphere of complacency’, which leaves me wondering: Do bells normally dent things as they swing away in their bell towers? And can a gaseous atmosphere even sustain a dent?




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