Saving the Frogs

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 12:46 PM EDT

Whenever a week is dominated by things like UN opening sessions, G20 meetings, senate markup sessions, and the like — well, you just know that's going to be a slow week.  When was the last time something genuinely interesting happened at a UN opening session, after all?  Thirty years ago when Yasser Arafat demonstrated his revolutionary cred by giving a speech with a gun holster at his hip?  (They made him leave the gun itself at the door.)

Meh. So let's pass some time talking instead about James Fallows' great obsession: boiling frogs.  To start, here's an excerpt from a piece Paul Krugman wrote a couple of months ago:

I'm referring, of course, to the proverbial frog that, placed in a pot of cold water that is gradually heated, never realizes the danger it's in and is boiled alive. Real frogs will, in fact, jump out of the pot — but never mind. The hypothetical boiled frog is a useful metaphor for a very real problem: the difficulty of responding to disasters that creep up on you a bit at a time.

Italics mine.  And Krugman is right: even though it's untrue that frogs will mindlessly poach themselves to death if you're careful to turn up the temperature on them slowly, it's a useful metaphor.  Still, it's not true.  So we should find another one.

But here's the thing: Fallows issued a worldwide call for good substitute metaphors two years ago.  Four days later he promised that winners would be announced in a couple of days.  And then....nothing.

So here's what I'm interested in.  The boiling frog cliche is untrue.  But it stays alive because, as Krugman says, it's a useful metaphor.  So why aren't there any good substitutes?

This is very strange.  Most useful adages and metaphors not only have substitutes, they have multiple substitutes.  "Look before you leap" and "Curiosity killed the cat."  "Fast as lightning" and "Faster than a speeding bullet."  Etc.  Usually you have lots of choices.

But in this case we don't seem to have a single one aside from the boiling frog.  Why?  Is it because it's not really all that useful a metaphor after all?  Because the frog has ruthlessly killed off every competitor?  Because it's not actually true in any circumstance, let alone with frogs in pots of water?  What accounts for this linguistic failure?

UPDATE: Hoo boy.  If Glenn Beck wasn't on Jim's shit list before, he sure is now.  He's also an idiot, of course.