Metaphors That Work
January 31, 2023 8:43 AM   Subscribe

What metaphors and idioms get used as a crutch in or are unique to your field (or specialization within your field) as shorthand for larger or abstract concepts?

For example, I’ve heard lawyers use “Don’t complain about a ‘Skunk in the Jury Box’ when you are the one who let it in.” and “You can’t ‘Unring a Bell’” when referring to a situation where information that was supposed to be kept confidential from a jury is somehow revealed to the jury in open court.

Doctors say something like “When you hear ‘hoof beats’, think horses not zebras.” when trying to accurately diagnose a disease or condition, because horses are more common than zebras.

What say you from your field, Mefites?
posted by DB Cooper to Human Relations (24 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: "Think cattle, not pets" is often used to describe how organizations ought to treat components of their IT infrastructure - anonymous, homogenous elements managed as a group at scale, instead of bespoke, solitary pieces that require unique 'care and feeding.'
posted by jquinby at 8:48 AM on January 31 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Software development: "Rubber duck debugging", for when you seek a colleague's help with a bug, and by the time you've finished describing the problem you know what's causing it. Your colleague has helped you, but in a capacity such that they might as well have been a rubber duck.

(Also applicable to a more literal case where you actually use a rubber duck or other inanimate object for this purpose, but I've never seen anyone do that.)
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 8:52 AM on January 31 [9 favorites]

not my field, but "when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras" implying that you should apply Occam's razor whenever possible
posted by ivanthenotsoterrible at 8:59 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In engineering we'll talk about a "belt and suspenders" solution, where you have two possible fixes and you apply them both rather than spend a lot of time and effort trying to narrow it down.
posted by Lady Li at 9:01 AM on January 31 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Also engineering - "How will this look in the accident investigation?" or "How will this look in the Congressional inquiry?" Basically a reminder about integrity and best practices.

People frequently "win the lottery" or (more commonly) are "hit by a bus" in reference to succession planning and making sure we don't lose institutional knowledge when people inevitably leave.

My company in particular does a lot of testing every year, but when you hear a particular event referred to as an "experiment" you know something is going to explode when they do it.
posted by backseatpilot at 9:22 AM on January 31 [6 favorites]

For design (and probably other fields): Good. Fast. Cheap. Pick two.
posted by hydra77 at 9:26 AM on January 31 [9 favorites]

Christmas tree bills in politics.
posted by greycap at 9:34 AM on January 31

Best answer: "Half a bridge is not a bridge" - in cost-benefit analysis of infrastructure projects with public funding. Means that if you're assessing the benefits from a complex investment, you need to make sure you take into account not just the costs of whatever your client is building, but all the ancillary stuff that's necessary to cause that positive effect. For example if you're upgrading a railroad between A and B, increasing the capacity so that there can be more frequent passenger services and thus more people switch to trains - take into account the outlay and operating costs of the rolling stock too, even if that's a completely different company.

(Comes from the Florio brick, I swear you can kill someone with that book.)
posted by I claim sanctuary at 9:39 AM on January 31 [2 favorites]

Best answer: In IT (and probably other fields), you might use the term "roll your own" to refer to solutions that you develop from scratch (as opposed to buying something that's provided by an outside company).

There's also the phrase "eat your own dog food": "Eating your own dog food is a phrase that refers to the internal use of a company's own products or services in its day-to-day operations. The idea is that if the product is good enough for consumers, it is good enough for its employees to use on the job."
posted by alex1965 at 9:56 AM on January 31 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This might be too obvious, but writers say "Kill your darlings" to mean you should be willing to get rid of parts of your writing that you love but aren't working. It supposedly originated with William Faulkner. Lots of people push back against this idea, but it's common to the point of being a cliché.
posted by FencingGal at 10:17 AM on January 31 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Project management: "The bearing of a child takes nine months, no matter how many women are assigned." - Fred Brooks, from The Mythical Man-Month
posted by flabdablet at 10:17 AM on January 31 [12 favorites]

Best answer: Social sciences: "The map is not the territory". It's a reminder that a model, while useful for thinking about a concept, necessarily leaves out many pertinent details.
posted by DrGail at 11:32 AM on January 31 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Library science: S.R. Ranganathan's five laws, especially 'every person their book,' 'every book their reader,' and 'the library is a growing organism.'
posted by box at 11:55 AM on January 31 [5 favorites]

You may be interested in this question.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:16 PM on January 31

Came here to post Ranganathan's Five Laws of Library Science too - especially the one that gets repeated in modern day as "always save the time of the user"
posted by lizard music at 12:59 PM on January 31 [1 favorite]

Trading: Get out when you can, not when you have to. Also, Get out when you are not right, not when you are wrong. I have also heard, you think long, you think wrong.
posted by JSM at 2:34 PM on January 31 [1 favorite]

Food banking (and probably other human services-oriented NGOs): feed the line, shorten the line. Namely, we need to help the people who are here now AND ALSO we need to address the root causes so that there are fewer people who need help in the future.
posted by punchtothehead at 3:24 PM on January 31 [2 favorites]

In sailing, "the quick way is always slower ", reminding people not to take short cuts, particularly in areas such as handling lines -- always do the job properly and carefully rather than trying to fix something with a quick flick or pull, likely to cause something to snag and a bigger more dangerous problem to solve.
posted by tillsbury at 3:42 PM on January 31 [2 favorites]

Best answer: In software engineering, "A rising tide lifts all boats" refers to an improvement made in the low level components of a system that will improve the performance of the system as a whole. For instance, caching or sharing frequently accessed values or data structures, selecting algorithms with better time complexity (such as constant time or linear time), etc.
posted by forthright at 4:05 PM on January 31 [1 favorite]

I think 'technical debt' is a straightforward one, in the sense that you're knowingly doing a bad job of something and incurring a debt of work (i.e. redoing it properly at some point in the future is 'paying the debt'), and paying interest on the debt (flakiness, speed, difficulty of use, etc., of the bodge job, again paid in work time) until you do. Typically a software engineering term.

The UK term for 'belt and suspenders' is the satisfyingly alliterative 'belt and braces'.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 6:44 PM on January 31 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: All such very good answers and I am most appreciative! Last call for Firefighters, ___ologists, Architects, Chimney Sweeps, etc. before I mark question as resolved? Thank you again!
posted by DB Cooper at 2:57 AM on February 1

"If you can't afford a planned shutdown; you can't afford an unplanned shutdown." In electrical work clients constantly want you to do maintenance on equipment live because they don't want to turn off the circuit to some "vital" piece of equipment. The problem is working live runs the risk of a damage causing short that a) trips the circuit protection thereby shutting it down anyways and while it wasn't expected b) said shutdown will be longer because now the damaged equipment will also have to be repaired and c) maybe the electrician won't be available to do the work because they have been injured or killed.
posted by Mitheral at 4:43 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]

“Software is like sex. It's better when it's free.” by Linus Torvalds.
posted by forthright at 3:14 PM on February 1 [1 favorite]

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