Neville Goodman’s Metaphor Watch: Not a raft unless it’s flat and keeps you afloat

neville_goodmanRaft has three primary meanings (COD): a flat buoyant structure or small boat; a floating mass of fallen trees, ice, etc.; foundation concrete for a building. From the second meaning it has come to mean a large amount of something. This makes it an attractive word.

There are 7000 rafts in PubMed. One thousand are there because it is an acronym: RAFT polymerization is reversible addition-fragmentation chain transfer polymerization. The poor old initial c of chain has been left out, presumably because RAFCT is unpronounceable, although without the chain nothing would happen at all. Repeating the PubMed search adding “NOT polymerization” takes the total down to 6000.

Many of those 6000 are there because the organisation of plasma membranes resembles a raft: glycosphingolipids and protein receptors are organised in microdomains, which have been termed lipid rafts, and this is an excellent interpretation. We can remove most of those from our search by adding “NOT lipid NOT membrane” and removing all those articles with raft in the title.

There is now an interminable list of rafts of this and that. Not one raft is necessary. Usually, a raft of can be replaced by the simple word many (much preferred to numerous or, even worse, a multitude of):

“Fluorescent molecular probes for metal ions have a raft of potential applications . . . ”

“In New Zealand, a raft of soft and hard law measures . . . govern this relationship.”

“A raft of tools and strategies are described to facilitate mobilization in ICU by the multidisciplinary team.”

“Predicting brain activity before specific outcomes occur brings a raft of unprecedented applications . . . ”

“ . . . increasingly understood to underlie a raft of morbid states.”

If the raft is of items that interlink it is still better to use a more literal word—scheme, system, or plan—unless the raft will keep you afloat. Programme is best avoided because of confusion with computers.

A metaphor always risks coming alive: “Metal regulatory transcription factor 1 heads a hierarchy of zinc sensors, and through controlling the expression of a raft of metallothioneins and other key proteins . . . ” Is this a raft in the membrane sense, or is it just lots of proteins? When we “consider the lessons that bioethicists should learn from the raft of literature now accumulating,” perhaps the ensuing raft of journals and books will enable us to float down the river of ignorance to the sea of wisdom.

Outside the medical world, the phrase “a raft of measures” is ubiquitous: they will enable stricter dog control, encourage people to volunteer, raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils; there is almost nothing that a raft of measures cannot do. Ultimate Jargon Buster reckons that a raft of measures means that “none of these ideas are any good but if we throw them together as part of a ‘package,’ at least it will look as if we are trying.” Unless your ideas tie together in a way to help flotation, don’t write raft.

Neville Goodman is a retired consultant anaesthetist and a writer. He is co-author of a book on medical English.

Competing interests: I have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and declare that my only competing interest is my co-authorship of a book about medical English.