Metaphors and their hometowns

"What kind of birds are those?" I asked the official of the retirement community in Arizona. I was touring as part of my coverage of businesses in the Phoenix area a number of years ago.

Details like this are known as "color" in the news business. They help justify a reporter's making an actual trip to the scene, instead of doing all the research by phone. I'd escaped Boston in February for this, and I wanted to bring back the goods.

My pen hovered over my notebook for a millisecond as I awaited a reply.

"They're coots," I was told.

"Coots? As in 'old'?" The words were out of my mouth before my sense of tact kicked in. I wanted to be sure I was hearing right.

"Yes," my guide replied with a tight smile that made me think it wasn't the first time that particular question had come up. But if they didn't want people to make jokes about old coots at the retirement community, they should have had some other kind of bird. So there.

Sometimes the literal and the metaphorical planes of our existence get a little too close for comfort, but there can be something satisfying about seeing them compress into one.

Just the other day, for instance, I was somewhat bent out of shape, metaphorically, because my glasses were, literally. A quick visit to the optometrist for the skillful ministrations of his specialty pliers took care of the problem. And once again, the spectacles sat squarely on my nose.

Here's an example of the two planes merging in the news business: Recently the Monitor had a story about how the controversy over whether illegal immigrants should be able to get driver's licenses was playing out in Los Angeles.

The city was "roiled" by controversy, the story said - roiled being a great newspaper verb, short and active, meaning "stirred up," literally or metaphorically. Los Angeles is a classic "melting pot," in the sense of being a city of immigrants from all over the world. So it was just perfect to be able to say the "melting pot" was "roiled."

Another example from real life: As the baseball season was reaching its glorious climax last fall, I went to dinner with a friend in one of her favorite neighborhood restaurants not far from Fenway Park. It looked as though the Red Sox could beat the Yankees, and this part of town, at least, was abuzz over preparations being made for security and crowd control around the ballpark.

My friend had the inside skinny on what had happened at an important meeting at the mayor's office that morning. But before she told me, she looked carefully all around her to make sure the source of her information, a neighbor of hers, was not there to overhear her passing it along.

"You're being quite circumspect," I commended her. After all, "circumspect" derives from Latin words meaning "looking around."

Another example from newspaperland: A Monitor story from Rome on Pope John Paul II's reservations about "godless" secular democracy referred to a particular Jesuit publication as having the "imprimatur" of the Vatican: Anything it printed could be assumed to be speaking for the church.

Getting to use "imprimatur" (Latin for "let it be printed") was like having an occasion to use a special punch bowl at the holidays. Rome, with its tradition of censoring some publications and banning others, is the hometown of "imprimatur."

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