I appreciated James Comey’s testimony before the Senate for many reasons, but one of them was linguistic. Comey struck me as articulate, but not chatty. A law and order type who, I’m guessing, wouldn’t like to be found saying something inaccurate, or vague, even if he weren’t speaking under oath before congress. So in that context, his choice of words and turns of phrase reminded me that metaphor, simile, and literary or other story references, are actually ways of being more concise with speech.
We often think of these things as decorations, somehow adding something flowery or beautifying to expand or inflate our meaning, which they do. But they also save time. And in Comey’s testimony, he used image rich turns of phrase often, to make a precise point more quickly or land with more emphasis than a more straight forward choice of words would have done. I think it did him a lot of favors in terms of making him more likeable and understandable.
Here are a few of my favorites.
When asked why he had given a letter to a friend to share with the media, rather than sharing it directly himself:
“I was worried it would be like feeding seagulls at the beach.”
In admitting that he was stunned by the circumstances of his meeting with the president:
“I don't want to make it sound like I'm Captain Courageous.”
When asked why we should believe him rather than the president:
“My mother raised me not to say things like this about myself, so I'm not gonna.” (The folksy use of the contracted ‘gonna’ evoked an image of young Comey at his Momma’s knee. In the transcript online, the editor saw fit to correct this to ‘going to’ but this did a disservice to the moment.)
In explaining that he felt testimony should be considered in the context of the whole person and their behavior and character:
“You can't cherry pick it.”
OK, now here’s one I can’t pin down. In explaining that he was absolutely sure the Russians had meddled in our election:
“There should be no fuzz on this whatsoever.”
No fuzz? Peaches have fuzz, but they’re not more clear without it. Young men have fuzz for beards, so perhaps he meant the idea was fully grown? I guess he meant there’s nothing fuzzy, nothing out of focus. But this time his metaphor was incomplete, left hanging like a peach on a tree, not yet ripe, with no fuzz.
Of Trump’s use of the phrase “I hope you can let this go”:
“It rings in my ear as, ‘will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest.’”
Not only did he quote Henry II’s murder-inspiring comment about the Archbishop of Canterbury, but he said “it rings in my ears,” evoking a more resonant echo than “I heard it as” would have done.
In describing the Russian’s desire to bring us down, and also expressing his admiration for the U.S.:
“We remain that shining city on the hill.”
Possibly a paraphrase of part of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:14, which would also imply that we, the U.S., are the light of the world. A patriotic sentiment, with a strongly religious undertone.
When asked about working on previous cyber intrusions, he called them “spear-phishing” which it turns out is what people call these kinds of cyber attacks, though when I heard it, I thought he was making up another metaphor, and that the transcriber had misspelled it. Learned something new here:)
When asked about part of his process coming to his conclusion of the investigation into Clinton’s emails:
“That was one of the bricks in the load”.
This makes his process sound substantial, and well-built.
When asked whether or not the F.B.I. investigation into Russia could reveal evidence of criminality:
“In any complex investigation, when you start turning over rocks, sometimes you find things that are unrelated to the primary investigation that are criminal in nature.”
So, what comes to mind when you imagine a rock being turned over?
People are put at ease when they understand your words. Even more so when they appreciate a story or image that gives those words meaning.