global English metaphorical English

Dirty tricks and honest metaphors

“I want to be straight with you. To come clean. It’s time I washed my hands of this whole stinking business. How could I have sunk to such depths? From now on, it’ll be total transparency with me – everything on the level. No more creeping in the gutter, doing some low-down dirt-heel’s dirty work.”

This person doesn’t reveal their business, but we can infer certain things from the kind of language they use. There are multiple references to dirt and hygiene and being low down, and though we understand these aren’t meant literally, they tell us there is something wrong with whatever it is the person has been doing. There’s a good chance it’s criminal activity, or it could be lawful but morally unsound.

The lines are hypothetical (and clichéd), but they serve to illustrate how metaphors assemble around core ideas. In this case, the ideas broadly have to do with honesty and dishonesty. As Diane Nicholls shows in her interesting article about the metaphors used to convey these concepts, honesty is felt to be white, clean, straight, up, bare and open, while dishonesty is characterised as dark, dirty, crooked, down, covered and closed.

Take the idiom I began with: being straight with someone. We also see people going straight, shooting straight, and talking straight, and there’s the related keeping to the straight and narrow. Some words show metaphorically that a person has veered or will veer from the straight and narrow path of honesty: crooked people could not walk the path, devious people would deviate from it, and sinister people would swing left – not the right way at all!

In another set of spatial metaphors, the poles of up and down are used to convey either honesty or its lack. Up is normally positive, and vice versa: honest people are upfront, straight up and above board; dishonest people are low, hidden, and underhanded. Unfair assaults are “low blows” whether in boxing fights or conversations.

Metaphor can be a subtle way of handling truth – hence the quote with which I began my previous article: “the defining feature of a metaphor is that it’s real”. Even criminals who live in bright airy penthouses operate underground in the black market. They are called snakes and rats, slithering and scurrying in the dirt instead of being upstanding citizens. A detective in Scarface (1932) describes gangsters as “crawling lice”, which evokes this low plane and also hints at the connections between hygiene, disgust, and morality – connections we make in our minds and express in our metaphors.

To read more on metaphors, visit Macmillan Dictionary’s page on metaphorical English, which has definitions, articles, links, and other resources.

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.


  • As usual, a fascinating post drawing from wonderfully varied sources. Thank you.

    It puts me in mind of Hamlet (most things put me in mind of Hamlet), where Ophelia plays with expectations talking to her brother. The thorny, difficult route, is the virtuous one, and the lovely, clean way is the disreputable one:

    Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
    Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
    Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine,
    Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
    And recks not his own rede.

    Hamlet Act 1, scene 3

    It’s a trope most familiar (to me) from Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678).

    In Early English Books Online (, I can only find four references to “thorny way” (and none to “thorny road/path/route/track/pathway”) that predate Hamlet (probably first performed in 1600, and first published in 1604).

    Three of them use the thorny way as the metaphorical road to hell rather than heaven, fitting the pattern Stan describes here. Only in a sermon by Calvin (The sermons of M. Iohn Caluin vpon the fifth booke of Moses called Deuteronomie, in a translated edition on 1583) is the thorny path the good one:

    Againe forasmuch as we be fraile and haue a rough and thornie way to goe, yea and there be many stoppes to barre vs, so as it will seeme that there be great mountaines to make vs turne backe againe: let vs pray our God to giue vs strength to go on stil forward.

    Calvin, p.48.

  • An amendment: Hamlet was first published in 1603; the second, “good” quarto edition of 1604/5 (the date changes mid-print-run) is the first to contain that speech of Ophelia’s.

  • Thank you, Pip, for the thoughtful observations. It’s very interesting how we can turn the metaphor around and have the thorny path lead to either heaven or hell. The central idea appears to be the easiness/difficulty of a certain way of living. Different aspects of (human ideas of) goodness or evil can be connoted by the same imagery; context is all-important.
    It reminds me of the Kusturica film Underground: in this case the people ‘underground’ are political revolutionaries rather than career criminals, and so we are invited to sympathise and identify with them.

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