‘What part of “razor tight” don’t you understand?’
This was the question posed by Stephen Colbert to Nate Silver on election eve [clip 5.11.12], following a bit about some newscaster silliness leading up to the election [transcript from Daily Kos; clip here]:
BILL HEMMER (11/5/2012): This race is absolutely razor tight.
CHUCK TODD (11/5/2012): A look at other national polls confirm it’s razor tight.
LESTER HOLT (10/29/2012): We’ve seen the polls razor tight.
KRISTEN WELKER (11/3/2012): This remains razor tight.
Colbert’s snarking comment:
Yes. This race is razor tight. That means no margin for error, or correct use of metaphor. I mean, it’s banana up for grabs.
When I posted about Colbert’s weird ‘Mitt is like a walking wound’ metaphor, I said it was both compelling (implying that it conveyed something meaningful) and at the same time a nonsensical mixing of idioms.
Now it’s Colbert doing the nitpicking over figurative language. Fine: Mixed metaphor. Makes no sense, once you think about it. ‘Razor thin’ and ‘tight’, two metaphors for closeness, have been hybridized into a vacuous phrase meaning just ‘very close’. It doesn’t make sense because while there is an obvious way in which a razor is thin, there is no sensical way in which a razor can be described as tight, nor can a tightness be razor-like.
Yet the phrase does make sense, which is why it was produced in the first place. It’s just not a metaphor. What we understand is the phrase as a whole, on its own, and without any transference of meaning or connotation from another unassociated concept. That is, we get it until we are made to think about how that phrase got there in the first place. It is a combined case of reanalysis and lexicalization, the process of making words in which a concept, often generated by metaphorical processes, gets reduced to a pure (mere?) denotation. ‘Razor’, originally a constituent part of a metaphor for closeness, has been reanalyzed as an intensifier when applied to an adjective of closeness (‘thin’, and so too ‘tight’). We might evaluate: ‘razor close’, ‘razor precise’, ‘razor accurate’, ‘razor near’. If none of those work for you, try expanding them into their underlying similes: ‘close as a razor’, ‘precise as a razor’, ‘accurate as a razor’, or ‘near as a razor’; or try ‘razor precision’, ‘razor closeness’, etc.
To illustrate how ‘razor tight’ conveys exactly what it intends to convey, compare it to Colbert’s reductio, ‘banana up for grabs’, which, as far as I can tell, is a mere nonsense. It does effectively show up the confusion of the constituent parts of the original metaphor, but only once we attend to them as distinct parts with their own distinct semantic histories, instead of a synchronically fixed phrase with a determinate meaning, which is what we naturally do, as native speakers.