In Tents #34 How Long Can Still Waters Keep Running Deep?

Explain this saying: “Still waters run deep.”

The saying means that we shouldn’t put down people who are quiet. Their stillness doesn’t mean they lack depth. It compares such people to a river. When a river is shallow it runs quickly. A deeper river runs slower. Think about the people out in the middle of the Provo river in their hip waders. The water is shallow and you can see it running and flowing around the hip waders. Up in the reservoir, where it’s deeper, the water is still. Of course the depth of the reservoir and the speed of the water going through it is controlled by whoever runs the spillway. Going up the canyon you can see the water running very quickly down the spillway. Shallow water. As water gets deeper it can absorb things flowing in quickly, and slow them down.


This starts out all right, but then in gets bogged down in an unexpected and confusing discussion of differing water depths.

What my 11-grade English teacher didn’t understand, and what I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain, is that she had asked us to describe what a particular metaphor meant, and I had tried to describe how it meant. I knew a metaphor was an implied comparison, one not using like or as, so if I was going to explain the comparison between quiet people and a slow running river I had to explain how the comparison worked. But there was a problem. I wasn’t sure how the comparison worked.

Years later I read the comment, “Still waters don’t run at all.” But that wasn’t the confusing part of the comparison, for I had always assumed that run was not a synonym for flow, but referred instead to the nature of something: It is the nature of still waters to be deep. Except that I was talking about flowing water, flowing around hip waders, flowing down the spillway. I tried to think about the slower stretches of the Provo, but I couldn’t think of any. I knew there were wider rivers, deeper than any hip wader, but I didn’t have any experience with them.

A metaphor is supposed to be a way of taking something you know and using it to understand something you don’t know, but I couldn’t validate from my own experience the idea that still waters run deep, and nearly 40 years later I can still summon up the frustration I felt at trying to explain something I couldn’t be certain of from my experience.

But if I can’t validate a metaphor from my own experience, how do I know my understanding is correct? Look at context, in this case Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, which I had seen a production of recently. In Scene IV Amanda Wingfield takes her son Tom aside and says she wants to talk about his sister, Laura. “You know how Laura is. So quiet but–still water runs deep! She notices things and I think she–broods about them.” There’s more depth to your sister than you think, Amanda is saying. Still water is a metaphor for Laura. Or is it just an image Amanda comes up with spontaneously, a handy cliche?

I recently heard another context for the statement, having to do with a conspiracy. “Still water runs deep, you know.” In that context it meant, “Be Careful. Things are not what they seem on the surface. There are undertows, undercurrents stronger and more dangerous than you might suppose.”

But context isn’t the only way metaphors make sense to us. The chief way metaphors make sense is through common sense, or through seizing common sense. Metaphors are most effective when they’re transparent, when we don’t have to think our way through the comparison.

When we have to think our way through a comparison we get stuck in unexpected and confusing discussions of water depth. That act of seizing common sense can make metaphors very compelling, give them coercive power. Resisting a metaphor can feel like resisting common sense, like raising your puny arm to stop the Mississippi in its course, or swimming against the current, fighting an undertow, swimming in deep waters. Of course, you might not be alone. See someone over yonder saying, “Deep water is where I am wont to swim.”

And because metaphors seem so common sensical to us, they can also be very seductive. The more transparent, the more seductive—and the more compelling, especially if we don’t realize the line of reasoning we just developed is a metaphor. Le metaphor juste can be worth a great deal of money, making product fly off the shelves and boosting sales into the stratosphere—getting us to spout all kinds of stuff we don’t think of as metaphors.

The right metaphor can be worth many votes as well, making a compelling case for some kind of public policy. Which raises a question. If influence rightly gained is supposed to flow to us not through undertows and irresistible currents, but “without compulsory means,” how do we avoid using compulsion? Aren’t writers in the busy ness of crafting the most vivid sentences we can, of making people want to keep reading, and reading, and reading?

But metaphor has a further power. Because we use metaphors so widely just calling something a metaphor can tap into all the coercive power of metaphors–as when someone says of a scripture story, “That’s not meant to be taken literally. It’s a metaphor.”

Recently on KUER’s talk show Radio West Reza Aslan made a claim about scripture stories as metaphor, which echoed a claim from John Dominic Crosson on Radio West a few years ago. Both claims were variants of the idea that the ancients thought differently about stories than we do, that truth for them was not tied to verifiable historical events like it is for us. The claim is worth thinking about, though the more I wrestle with it (water rising around us) the more it seems that if there was a change in the way we think about historical narratives the change means that for the ancients a narrative didn’t have to be either figurative or literal, it could be both at the same time.

That is, I suspect they saw comparisons more in terms of puns—where the two things being compared are both necessary for the comparison to work—than in terms of metaphors, where only the metaphorical meaning counts.

Your turn.

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15 Responses to In Tents #34 How Long Can Still Waters Keep Running Deep?

  1. Th. says:


    George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” comes to mind.

    • Harlow says:

      Thanks, Th. Would you care to elaborate?

      “Politics and The English Language” has a fair number of defenders and detractors. English teachers seem to love it, or at least they teach it a lot. Others not so much. Peter Thorpe has a chapter called “Politics and the Orwellian Language” in Why Literature is Bad for You. I’m not sure I read that far–Thorpe’s tone goes way beyond broadsword satire, very caustic–but I think his point is that Orwell sets up an elitist definition of how language ought to be used and calls anything else corrupt.

      I do think Orwell overstates his case in saying that politics corrupts the language. His complaints remind me of the reporter who was interviewing James M. Cain, author of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, and expressed his commiseration for how Hollywood had ruined Cain’s novels. “No they didn’t,” Cain said. “They’re right there,” pointing to the bookcase.

      No matter what corrupt purposes people put language to it’s still capable of expressing the full range of human thought and emotion and experience. Orwell is more perceptive about language in “The Principles of Newspeak,” the appendix to 1984. I avoided the novel for a long time because I didn’t want to read that awful last sentence, “He loved Big Brother.” I knew it signified defeat, but didn’t know what else it meant.

      I found a recording by Simon Prebble a few years ago and enjoyed it, but it didn’t include “The Principles of Newspeak,” so I read that, and found that it’s not Orwell’s commentary on the novel–it’s part of the novel. The essay talks of Newspeak in the past tense, and the implied author is some future academic in a world after the collapse of Oceania.

      For all the power of Big Brother’s corruption, Newspeak can’t sustain the society. Evil can’t sustain itself indefinitely.

      • Th. says:


        Specifically, I was thinking of what he has to say about metaphors that have lost their metaphoracity (my word, not his).

        I disagree that Orwell’s being elitist. He’s arguing in favor of language that means rather than obfuscates. I have a hard time viewing that as elitist.

        Your argument on what the appendix signifies is pretty fascinating. Because it’s obviously true, yet I’ve never thought to read it that way. Such a strange almost off-putting blast of optimism after one of the biggest downer endings of all time.

        • Scott Parkin says:

          On a tangentially related note (tangent to both the primary focus of this post and your comment), it’s interesting to see how the same elements can be used to tell entirely different stories.

          The film “Brazil” is fascinating that way. If you watch the original European release the film tells one (very dark) story; if you watch the U.S. theatrical release (the Hollywood “Love Conquers All” version), the same exact footage is significantly re-edited to not only change the narrative target (a functionally happy ending), but to essentially invert the thematic intent. In the process, it went from dark and whimsical to merely whimsical.

          Apparently American audiences were deemed incapable of appreciating the original (or at least buying enough movie tickets to make it financially worthy) unless it was recast as a triumph by POV.

          Metaphors can be tricky things that are almost as useful as statistics in allowing one to choose what they (want them to) mean.

          There’s a nice Criterion Collection DVD set that shows the original “Brazil” release, the U.S. theatrical release, and a director’s cut expanded re-release. A useful look at how the same imagery can be used to tell radically different stories (or be interpreted by a mind inclined to see a different result).

  2. Tyler says:

    You say, Harlow, that “in terms of metaphors, . . . only the metaphorical meaning counts.” But don’t both things in the metaphor-relationship matter a great deal to the function of the relationship? Without two things, after all, there is no comparison. What’s more, our understanding of the things compared in a metaphor can be shaped by the comparison; each thing is ultimately essential to the relationship. So I’m not sure I can get on board with your suggestion that only the product of the metaphor-relationship matters.

    Having said that, I like the idea that the writers of ancient scripture may not have separated a story’s literal meaning from its figurative meaning, that it’s possible to hold both things in mind simultaneously (as we must with both puns and metaphors), and that we “moderns” could benefit from taking our scriptural stories both ways.

    • Dennis Clark says:

      You and Harlow both need to read _The pun also rises_ by John Pollack, who points out the long and noble history of double meanings in the Bible and in Jewish commentary on the Tanakh.

      His observations are, of course, not original with him — but it always seems to come as a surprise to we Mormons that the literal reading of scripture is not the only one, let alone not the preferred one. Without double-mindedness, how could we possibly embrace all the meanings in this best of all possible worlds?

  3. Harlow says:

    Thanks, Tyler. You raise a good point. You would think, given the way we talk about metaphors in high school and college English classes, that both parts of a metaphor would be necessary to the comparison. But when you talk about having to have two parts for a comparison, what you’re really talking about is similes, not metaphors. Most of us learned that a simile is a comparison using like or as, and a metaphor is an implied comparison, but in important ways a metaphor is an equivalence, not a comparison at all. Consider this short narrative:

    People in Seattle don’t know how to drive in the snow. I was headed for an appointment in Kirkland one day and it started snowing. Lightly, but it started shutting down traffic, even before it started snowing heavier. Mayor Royer was having his monthly talk show on KUOW and someone asked him where all the snow removal equipment was. “We sold it. It never snows here.” The Evergreen Point floating bridge was a parking lot, and I never did get to Kirkland. I knew if I got onto the 405 I wouldn’t get anywhere either.

    I stopped at a gas station in Bellevue to call my wife, and there was a stranded motorist there. I took him home with me. We drove through Bellevue and got on I-90 going back to Seattle. Almost no one on the road. Next morning I took him back over to Bellevue to get his car, and 90 really was like a parking lot, cars abandoned here and there, but mostly empty. Or it looked like a football field covered in snow. Eerie, like “The Whiteness of the Whale.”

    As soon as I finished typing the narrative the Jimmy John’s commercial commercial came on where the guy is stuck in traffic and calls his wife and says, “It’s a parking lot here. Go ahead and start eating.”

    The man on the phone is not trying to draw a picture of a parking lot for his wife, he’s simply using a phrase that means traffic isn’t moving. That’s the same way I”m using the phrase in the first paragraph. And if you think about the sentence grammatically there’s no comparison involved. That is, the paragraph has no comparison words, no like or as. Rather, the paragraph uses the word for equivalence, or identity, is.

    Now, the second paragraph is a comparison. I am asking you to picture a parking lot (empty, not packed with cars as in the first paragraph) or a football field under snow.

    Here’s another example I heard on the radio, “The White House is vigorously defending its policies.” There’s no comparison involved. Almost no one hearing that will picture a white house talking. or putting on boxing gloves. An image of the White House may flash through their mind–maybe the scene of the White House blowing up in Independence Day–but it will not be an image of a talking house. The metaphorical meaning of the phrase is the only thing we pay attention to, not the literal meaning of the words.

    Strictly speaking, “The White House said,” is metonymy, not metaphor, but in the taxonomy of rhetorical figures, metaphor is a subset of metonymy, and metaphors work the same way, by displacing the literal meaning of a phrase, by replacing the literal meaning with the metaphorical meaning.

    That’s why we understand, without even thinking about it, that when someone says the Nativity is a metaphor–part of an ancient tradition of ascribing divinity to your king–they are also saying it is not a real historical event. Someone claiming that a scriptural story is metaphorical is not thinking of metaphors as puns, where “it’s possible to hold both things in mind simultaneously.” They’re claiming implicitly or explicitly that you can’t have the story both as metaphor and historical record.

    I’ll be talking about this more at length with more examples. It’s important to understand how we actually use metaphors, and how they function in our discourse. It’s also important to understand that not all comparisons, and not all figures of speech, are metaphors. Puns, especially.

    • Tyler says:

      I’m well aware of the distinction between a metaphor and a simile, Harlow. And I see what you’re getting at when you state that a metaphor isn’t so much a comparison but an equivalence. Yet even calling it “an equivalence” still implies that at least two things are involved in the relationship and that thing one is analogous to thing two in ways that allow the relationship to function. Take, for instance, the statement “It’s a parking lot here.” Although the speaker makes no explicit comparison, he does imply one: that the place he currently is—“here,” i.e., a main thoroughfare—bears striking similarities to another place—“a parking lot,” which is essentially unlike a main thoroughfare. To understand the shorthanded way the metaphor communicates its meaning, the listener needs, first, to know something about parking lots and, second, to be able to transfer that knowledge to the new situation, i.e., to compare the speaker’s “here” with “a parking lot.” Just because it likely doesn’t require any effort for her to make the comparison or to draw an equivalency between these two places, that doesn’t mean she isn’t holding in her mind simultaneously the two things brought together by this particular metaphor. Her ability to understand her husband’s situation depends on her culturally-mediated ability to maintain the comparison/equivalency implied in his statement.

      Now, if the listener had no knowledge of parking lots, the speaker’s metaphor would fall flat. In this instance, because his audience couldn’t understand one part of the equivalency he was implying, she wouldn’t understand his dilemma and he would likely have to get more literal with his explanation.

      As another example of the simultaneity of parts present in figurative expressions, take the metonymic statement you mention: “The White House is vigorously defending its policies.” The relationship in the statement isn’t based on similarities but on contiguities—on the closeness of the thing said to its referent. In this case, the White House refers to or stands in for the President and his advisors, i.e., those acting with Presidential authority. To understand this figurative expression, then, listeners need to know that the White House houses the President and that the President et al act with what authority has been delegated to them via the country’s official channels. As with the statement discussed above, just because it likely doesn’t require any effort for the informed listener to make this connection, that doesn’t mean s/he isn’t holding in mind simultaneously each part of the metonym. Her/his ability to understand the subject of the sentence depends on her/his culturally-mediated ability to maintain the relationship implied in the figure.

      With my responses I’m not trying to say that everyone who thinks “a scriptural story is metaphorical” is able to simultaneously believe both the narrative’s literal meaning and its metaphorical meaning. What I am trying to say, though (to elaborate on what I said in my original comment), is that each part of the figurative expressions we make matters (you claimed only the metaphorical meaning counts) and that each expression’s proper function depends on our ability to understand and to maintain the relationship between the expression’s often disparate parts. As you mention, metaphor and metonymy work by replacing or overlaying the literal meaning with the metaphorical meaning; agreed. But a reader/listener needs to be able to grasp and to simultaneously (if unconsciously) hold in the mind each part of the equivalence in order to grasp the metaphorical meaning. It was in this context that I was comparing metaphors and puns: that with both it’s necessary to hold each part of the figurative expression in the mind simultaneously; otherwise the expression doesn’t function as it should. I’m not saying that metaphors are puns or puns metaphors or that all figures of speech are metaphors.

      In short, I was simply taking exception with your claim that only the metaphorical meaning counts. That was what sparked my comment, in which I tried to suggest, again, that each part of the metaphor-relationship matters.


      *Maintain means to hold in the hand—how’s that for a metaphor?

      • Tyler says:

        (BTW: That starred comment was supposed to be attached to my first use of the word “maintain.”)

      • Harlow says:

        Thanks for an interesting analysis of simultaneity in metaphors. Sorry to take so long to reply. I maybe should have clarified that I meant the literal element is not important rhetorically, that is, not important to the rhetorical work a metaphor does. The literal meaning drops out of the discourse immediately, displaced by the metaphorical meaning. If I had said that, though, you might not have written your reply, which raises an intriguing question. If a metaphor depends on comparison, why is the element of displacement is so strong? Where does the displacement come from? In thinking about that it occurs to me that the comparison in a metaphor may be more like Hitchcock’s McGuffin–the object or device that sets the story in motion, the excuse for the story–than like a real comparison. I’ll be talking about this more in #35, and maybe 36 and beyond.

  4. Jonathan Langford says:

    I think part of what Tyler is saying (if I understand him correctly) is that even if we consciously privilege the non-literal meaning, in order to understand a metaphor at all, we have to have sufficient background knowledge to build a mental bridge to the literal meaning. Yes?

    Which makes me wonder (in a science-fictiony sort of way) what an alien race might look like that was incapable of understanding metaphors. Would such a thing even be possible? How would you represent their thinking, if you were writing about them? Are there individual humans (or perhaps human cultures, or even language) that don’t utilize/understand metaphor? How would that change the stories we could tell about them? The stories they can tell?

    • Wm says:

      China Miéville’s Embassytown explores that idea.

    • Th. says:


      It’s dealt with sometimes in books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time as well.

    • Orson Scott Card, in his HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY, points out that science fiction writers have to be very careful with metaphors because what could be considered metaphorical in mainstream literature could very well be considered literal in science fiction.

      My favorite example of this is “as the family sat at breakfast, the morning sun came through the window” and there are a host of others, such as “his eyes dropped to the table.”

      Card gives the example of “the baggage train snaked across the tarmac” because you actually might have a science fictional world in which baggage is moved across tarmacs by reptilian means.

    • Tyler says:

      I think part of what Tyler is saying (if I understand him correctly) is that even if we consciously privilege the non-literal meaning, in order to understand a metaphor at all, we have to have sufficient background knowledge to build a mental bridge to the literal meaning. Yes?


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