Ever wonder what that expression really means? A current interpretation might be that it is impolite to receive a gift and then question the value of that gift. Long ago when we all rode horses it had something to do with a horse’s age and its teeth, or “So a wise man told me”.

The above equine expression is a metaphor. Metaphors are used as a way to better describe something. More specifically, metaphors are comparisons that show how two things that are not alike in most ways are similar in one important way. Secondly, this particular metaphor about the gift horse is a dead metaphor, since it has lost its original meaning or context. When metaphors are overused they become clichés and they can have little or no meaning at all and might actually confuse the listener.

Sales people use metaphors all the time to better communicate what they mean. In particular, sales people use metaphors to help customers understand an offering’s benefits and they also help the sales people to be remembered, “For better or for worse”. While it is true that metaphors can help sales people communicate better, poorly chosen metaphors can have the opposite effect much like “Pissing in the wind” or “Never squat with your spurs on”.

Here are a few tips on metaphor usage:

– Use as few words as possible. Long metaphors can put customers to sleep or confuse them.
– Avoid clichés. It can be like “The blind leading the blind”.
– Selling is not Shakespeare. He said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances…” I still don’t know what that means and neither will your customers.
– Don’t overdo them; say what you mean. Too many metaphors will make you look like you are “Not the sharpest knife in the drawer” or “The light’s on and nobody is home” or “One card short of a full deck” (you might look stupid).
– Use appropriate metaphors for your audience. “Let dead dogs lie” may be offensive to someone who just lost their favorite dog.
– Avoid mixing metaphors such “As much fun as shooting monkeys in a barrel”.

Finally, make an effort to either use more original metaphors, or simply choose a straightforward description.

“If you can’t run with the big dogs, stay on the porch”.

John Bradley Jackson
© Copyright 2006 All rights reserved.

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  1. B.J. Schwitzer

    Dear John, (a metaphor right there!)
    “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” You mention a “current interpretation” of this phrase being not to question the value of a gift you have received. Actually, the phrase is much broader than that. It can involve the receipt of a gift, yes. But the phrase is basically saying when you’ve got a good thing going, don’t jeopardize it intentionally. These wonderfully descriptive phrases are what make our language so interesting, don’t you think? Also, the correct wording on the dog metaphor is “Let sleeping dogs lie.” How about this one?-“From the frying pan into the fire.” Seven words say alot, don’t they? Best of luck to you!
    “From my lips to God’s ear.” BJS 12/7/07

  2. BJS,

    You are correct.

    According to GoEnglish.com: To “let sleeping dogs lie” is to avoid restarting old conflicts. Revisiting an old conflict is like waking a sleeping dog; we are better not to do it. Example: “I wanted to ask her what she thought of her ex-husband, but I figured it was better to let sleeping dogs lie.

    Yet, my error only reinforces the point that metaphors die and then mean nothing at all.



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