A metaphor is used to link two seemingly disparate concepts together and implies a comparison between them. For example most illustrations where an organisation is equated with an octopus (i.e. United Fruit is an octopus). It implies those traits associated with an octopus are also those of the organisation: multi-limbed, interfering, alien and (possibly) malevolent.
George Orwell used ‘the Fascist octopus has sung its swan song’1 as an example of a bad – and mixed – metaphor in which the writer has not really thought about what image they are invoking. He claimed that metaphors range from ‘newly invented’ to ‘dead’ metaphors (those have become ordinary words). The two end members of new and dead can be used without loss of meaning. But in between, he argued, was ‘a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves’2.
Over the course of these articles I hope to be able to argue the the octopus metaphor is a ‘dying metaphor’. The octopus has been used as a metaphor since 1860s (and possibly earlier). It is a cliché, and has been applied so broadly it has lost its often polemic3 persuasion. When everybody is an octopus, perhaps it is time for a new metaphor?
The following articles will illustrate the ways in which the octopus has been used as a metaphor, and is still being used as one to describe organisations and individuals thought to have too much influence. From anti-trust to anti-Semitism the octopus has proven itself very flexible.
- George Orwell “Politics and the English Language”, First published: Horizon. GB, London. April 1946. (Accessed Dec 29 2008)
- It is atypical for the octopus to be used in a apologetic context