Understanding Burlesque Metaphors

Definition and Examples

finding a pearl
finding a pearl. michael davis-burchat/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

A burlesque metaphor is a metaphor in which the figurative comparison is exceptionally comic, grotesque, or exaggerated. It's also known as a radical metaphor.

Professor Seth Lerer characterizes burlesque metaphor as "something of a theater of word use, a kind of vaudeville of new coinages or loan words" (Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language, 2007).

Examples and Observations

  • "I'll tell you what justice is. Justice is a knee in the gut from the floor on the chin at night sneaky with a knife brought up down on the magazine of a battleship sandbagged underhanded in the dark without a word of warning. Garroting. That's what justice is . . .." (Joseph Heller, Catch-22, 1961)
  • "It was a very black night and the girl was dressed in cream-coloured muslin, and must have glimmered under the tall trees of the dark park like a phosphorescent fish in a cupboard." (Ford Maddox Ford, The Good Soldier, 1915)
  • "The Pegasus of the Italian drama, if I may venture on a burlesque metaphor, was a mule begotten by the sturdy ass of Latin on the fleet mare of the Italian spirit; and it had the sterility of the mule." (John Addington Symonds, Renaissance in Italy, 1875)

A Strained Metaphor by Tom Robbins

  • "The normal rectal temperature of a hummingbird is 104.6.
    "The normal rectal temperature of a bumblebee is calculated to be 110.8, although so far no one has succeeded in taking the rectal temperature of a bumblebee. That doesn't mean it can't or won't be done. Scientific research marches on: perhaps at this moment, bee proctologists at DuPont . . .
    "As for the oyster, its rectal temperature has never even been estimated, although we must suspect that the tissue heat of the sedentary bivalve is as far below good old 98.6 as that of the busy bee is above. Nonetheless, the oyster, could it fancy, should fancy its excremental equipment a hot item, for what other among Creation's crapping creatures can convert its bodily wastes into treasure?
    "There is a metaphor here, however strained. The author is attempting to draw a shaky parallel between the manner in which the oyster, when beset by impurities or disease, coats the offending matter with its secretions, thereby producing a pearl, a parallel between the eliminatory ingenuity of the oyster and the manner in which Sissy Hankshaw, adorned with thumbs that many might consider morbid, coated the offending digits with glory, thereby perpetuating a vision that the author finds smooth and lustrous."
    (Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Houghton Mifflin, 1976)

    Mencken's Exuberant Metaphor

    • "And here, more than anywhere else I know of or have heard of, the daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly--the unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries, of commercial brigandages and throat-slittings, of theological buffooneries, of aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries, of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries, and extravagances--is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows." (H.L. Mencken, "On Being an American," 1922)