'House' Calls: The Metaphors of Dr. Gregory House

"That's the problem with metaphors. They need interpretation."

"Would you mind holding my metaphor for a second?" (Hugh Laurie as Dr. Gregory House in House, M.D.). © courtesy Andrew Macpherson/FOX

Before you can ask if there's a metaphor in the house, Dr. Gregory House will oblige:

Have you guys heard any of my metaphors yet? Well come on, sit on grandpa's lap as I tell you how infections are criminals; immune system's the police. Seriously, Grumpy, get up here: it'll make us both happy.
(Dr. Gregory House in the "Mirror, Mirror" episode of House, M.D.)

Over the past several years, the names of a dozen writers have appeared in the credits to the Fox TV program House, M.D.

Each, it appears, owns a well-thumbed copy of the Merck Manual of Medical Information. And by now all must be collaborating on a new edition of the Dictionary of Metaphors. As regular viewers are aware, the show's deeply disturbed protagonist (played by Hugh Laurie) is inclined to deliver inflammatory eructations of festering figures of speech.

Medical Metaphors

At times House relies on metaphors to translate complex medical conditions into language that his colleagues (and other "true idiots") can understand:

  • Cervical lymph node is a garbage dump. Very small one--just one truck comes, and it only comes from one home. Al Gore would be appalled.
    ("97 Seconds")
  • Saying there appears to be some clotting is like saying there's a traffic jam ahead. Is it a ten-car pile up, or just a really slow bus in the center lane? And if it is a bus, is that bus thrombotic or embolic? I think I pushed the metaphor too far.
    ("Euphoria, Part 1")
  • Dr. House: You know, when the Inuit go fishing, they don't look for fish.
    Dr. Wilson: Why, Dr. House?
    Dr. House: They look for the blue heron, because there's no way to see the fish. But if there's fish, there's gonna be birds fishing. Now, if he's got hairy-cell, what else are we gonna see circling overhead?
    ("Role Model")
  • Dr. House: As far as you're concerned, the patient is Osama bin Laden, and everyone not in this room is Delta Force. Any questions?
    Applicant #11: We're protecting Osama bin Laden?
    Dr. House: It's a metaphor. Get used to it.
    ("The Right Stuff")
  • The tumor is Afghanistan, the clot is Buffalo. Does that need more explanation? OK, the tumor is Al-Qaeda. We went in and wiped it out, but it had already sent out a splinter cell--a small team of low-level terrorists quietly living in some suburb of Buffalo, waiting to kill us all. . . . It was an excellent metaphor. Angio her brain for this clot before it straps on an explosive vest.
    ("Autopsy")
  • The liver is like a cruise ship taking in water. As it starts to sink, it sends out an SOS. Only instead of radio waves, it uses enzymes. The more enzymes in the blood, the worse the liver is. But once the ship has sunk, there's no more SOS. You think the liver's fine, but it's already at the bottom of the sea.
    ("Locked In")
  • Dr. Cameron: Idiopathic T-cell deficiency?
    Dr. House: Idiopathic, from the Latin meaning we're idiots 'cause we can't figure out what's causing it. Give him a whole body scan.
    Dr. Cameron: You hate whole body scans.
    Dr. House: 'Cause they're useless. Could probably scan every one of us and find five different doodads that look like cancer. But, when you're fourth down, 100 to go, in the snow, you don't call a running play up the middle. Unless you're the Jets.
    Dr. Cameron: I hate sports metaphors.
    ("Role Model")

    But House is generally more intent on frightening than on edifying. As he once said, "The point of metaphors is to scare people from doing things by telling them that something much scarier is going to happen than what will really happen. God, I wish I had a metaphor to explain that better" ("All In").

    At other times the House metaphor is nothing more than a comic exercise in doctor-patient incivility. Once, after discovering that a young man had attempted self-circumcision with a utility knife, House snapped, "Stop talking. I'm going to get a plastic surgeon. To get the Twinkie back in the wrapper."

    Living Metaphors

    Of course, House himself is a walking, or rather limping metaphor--his crippled leg an emblem of his deformed spirit. And his acerbic metaphorical remarks may be read as symptoms of an undiagnosed malady:

    • No, there is not a thin line between love and hate. There is, in fact, a Great Wall of China with armed sentries posted every twenty feet between love and hate.
      ("Occam's Razor")
    • Dr. Wilson: Beauty often seduces us on the road to truth.
      Dr. House: And triteness kicks us in the nads.
      ("Occam's Razor")
    • Lies are a tool: they can be used either for good or--no, wait, I've got a better one. Lies are like children: hard work, but they're worth it because the future depends on them.
      ("It's A Wonderful Lie")
    • Dr. House: Nothing matters. We're all just cockroaches, wildebeests dying on the river bank. Nothing we do has any lasting meaning.
      Evan Greer: And you think I'm miserable?
      Dr. House: If you're unhappy on the plane, jump out of it.
      Evan Greer: I want to, but I can't.
      Dr. House: That's the problem with metaphors. They need interpretation. Jumping out of the plane is stupid.
      Evan Greer: But what if I'm not in a plane? What if I'm just in a place I don't want to be?
      Dr. House: That's the other problem with metaphors. Yes, what if you're actually in an ice cream truck, and outside are candy and flowers and virgins? You're on a plane! We're all on planes. Life is dangerous and complicated, and it's a long way down.
      ("Living the Dream")
    • You know me. Hostility makes me shrink up like a . . .. I can’t think of a non-sexual metaphor.
      ("Spin")
    • You know it's all nice when people start to dig these holes, but then they start to live in these holes and get angry when someone pushes dirt into those holes. Come out of your holes, people!
      ("House vs. God")
    • Dr. House: I'm a night owl, Wilson's an early bird. We're different species.
      Dr. Cuddy: Then move him into his own cage.
      Dr. House: Who'll clean the droppings from mine?
      ("Sleeping Dogs Lie")

    Every now and then, however, House finds himself on the wrong side of a metaphor, as in this exchange with a young patient:

    Dr. House: Are you going to base your whole life on who you're stuck in a room with?
    Eve the Patient: I'm going to base this moment on who I am stuck in a room with! It's what life is. It's a series of rooms, and who we get stuck in those rooms with, adds up to what our lives are.
    ("One Day, One Room")

    And how does House respond to the woman's metaphor? As he must, by silently--and literally--walking out of the room.

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    Nordquist, Richard. "'House' Calls: The Metaphors of Dr. Gregory House." ThoughtCo, Nov. 23, 2014, thoughtco.com/the-metaphors-of-dr-gregory-house-1691858. Nordquist, Richard. (2014, November 23). 'House' Calls: The Metaphors of Dr. Gregory House. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-metaphors-of-dr-gregory-house-1691858 Nordquist, Richard. "'House' Calls: The Metaphors of Dr. Gregory House." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-metaphors-of-dr-gregory-house-1691858 (accessed September 20, 2017).