On NPR’s Fresh Air yesterday, Stephen Colbert said of his television show character, also called Stephen Colbert:
He wants to have a champion that he can champion and that just doesn’t exist in Mitt Romney right now. He’s just a walking wound. [link]
As a figure of speech, to me this is both compelling and almost inconceivable. Which is a weird combination. So, worth a think:
To start, I think I know what Colbert means–something like, Romney is a walking disaster, a walking catastrophe, clusterfuck or whatever–but how can something as bodily and embodied as a wound itself be imagined as growing legs and walking around? What does that even look like, let alone even mean?
Disasters and catastrophes negatively affect things around them, which is why you don’t want them to walk around the place, especially in your direction. There “walking” is a kind of metonymy or verbal stand-in for “moving” or “spreading”. On the other hand, the strongest collocates for “a walking” on the Google appear to be “paradox” and “contradiction,” where “walking” is a kind of metaphorical personification, or its opposite: a contradiction is imagined as an embodied human being, or a human is described as the embodiment of a contradiction.
But “a walking wound”? Neither the metonymical nor the metaphorical process seems to be at work here, so what is going on? Three (or two) theories:
Theory A: Employing an established figure
Here is a selection hits from the Google that give some idea of how this particular figure of speech has been imagined before:
As I told a friend if mine, as parents we are walking wounds. We are all just so vulnerable, and if someone hurts your kid or says something hateful about them, it doesn’t ever heal. [link]
For a few days, I felt like a walking wound — the air on my skin too cold and sharp. [link]
She was a walking wound, an emotional devastation, one of which she could never get over, perhaps she was the biggest casualty of the war. [link]
He is a walking wound. The wounded seek to wound. Being in pain the agents of evil seek to inflict pain. [link]
Back in my mid twenties I was a walking wound, and to compensate I tried to take care of others and become the tool to their healing. [link]
I am a walking wound
Wounds left as a reminder
And silent struggle for meaning
The fight has been been won
And I am defeated. [link]
Other than the poem, where a physical wounds become generalized into a symbol of personal defeat in service of a national victory, these examples all describe a sort of intense psychological vulnerability due to a traumatic experience.
This doesn’t jibe well with what Colbert seems to be saying about Romney, though. Falling short of being “a champion that he can champion” is far from displaying or even suffering “emotional devastation.” If anything, Romney has been accused of showing and feeling too little emotion, not too much.
Theory B-1: Confusing an established figure
Maybe what Colbert really meant, whether he intended the actual phrase he spoke or not, was something like, “Romney is one of the walking wounded,” which is a phrase that would make sense if you think Romney is a candidate who isn’t espousing anything anyone can latch onto or champion.
It would make sense, but “He’s just a walking wound” is just a lot more compelling (to me) than “He’s just a walking wounded,” so perhaps Colbert wasn’t confused or mistaken at all. Maybe there’s something else going on that’s allowing this sense to remain within an idiom with a substantially different literal sense.
Theory B-2: Figure Drift
Lots of figures of speech over time get detached from their literal meaning and/or their direct imagery. In this case, I think what has most likely happened is that the sense of “the walking wounded” has been transferred to “a walking wound” to create a sort of hybrid figure, a process we might call “figure drift”. “A walking wound” is recommended prosodically here (as is clear from my awkward attempts to substitute “the walking wounded” above), and it also carries stronger pejorative force (because a wound is kind of gross whereas the wounded are more closely associated with sympathy than with disgust). And it’s fresher: to use a rudimentary measure, it scores 19K Google hits (including those by Colbert himself) vs. about a million for the more established phrase.
I think theory B-2 depends on theory B-1 to some extent (though not all instances of B-1 become examples of B-2). To guess, I’d say Colbert probably never heard “a walking wound” before, and thought (if he thought) he was coming up with something new and snappy when he described Romney that way. Time will tell if the expression receives the “Colbert bump” and becomes generally synonymous with “[one of the] walking wounded.” I wouldn’t bet on it.
One instance I found on the Google is a really tight figure which conveys all sorts of good sense and imagination. It’s the invention of Joseph Epstein :
He was a man perpetually ticked off, a walking wound in search of a saltshaker. [link]