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When metaphors fail to keep their distance
A name-brand financial columnist wrote the following paragraph in a piece about Web-based credit cards:
Most issuers mail you a plastic card, usually a MasterCard or Visa, which you also can use in stores. At Citibank, however, plastic has become uncool. Instead, it's offering ClickCredit, a virtual card (www.clickcredit.com). It acts like a credit card, but exists only in Citi's computer. You use it solely for making purchases on the Web.The problem is, I have one of these Citibank cards, and while it's true that it's not an ordinary credit card that you carry around in your wallet and use at stores, it's also true that the ClickCredit people do mail you a card, and it's made of plastic.
So I changed the paragraph to this:
Most issuers mail you a card, usually a Visa or MasterCard, that you can also use in stores. Citibank's ClickCredit (www.clickcredit.com), on the other hand, is solely for Web purchases.I also tried to call the columnist, but it was late on a Friday night and I had to settle for voice mail. I left a message explaining the problem, in hopes that the change could be made before dozens of publications ran an incorrect syndicated version.
When I got to work the following Monday, my voice mail contained a message from the columnist, who was obviously agitated, saying in essence that the column was absolutely correct and I better not have screwed it up. I never heard another word about it, so I suppose my minor change didn't offend the columnist too much.
What I was confronted with was a case of metaphor colliding with reality. "Plastic" has come to represent the credit card. That's fine and dandy, but it also represents plastic, and this was a case where the literal plastic was present even if the metaphorical one wasn't. If you were writing about a man so poor he subsists on two-day-old bread from a bakery trash bin, it would be especially silly to use the slang term "bread" to mean money. Yes, the guy has no money, but he does have bread.
For more on literalism, see an earlier Sharp Point.
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