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I felt I had to get a college degree at the poke of Obama's speech about higher education being essential in this globalized economy.

Is this "at the poke of" an acceptable metaphor?

I felt inspired to get a higher education is the message, I guess.

Any help would be appreciated.

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  • There's ambiguity here which makes this difficult to answer. Can you provide references to where this comes from and the actual speech by Obama? Jun 13 '14 at 12:04
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The definition for metaphor is "a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable." As such, since Obama didn't really poke anyone, the argument that this is a metaphor is reasonable.

However, you have to be careful to evaluate the definition of the word poke as well. One of the formal meanings of the word is meddle, intrude, search or pry. The speaker is saying that Obama's speech stirred him up and motivated him to go to college. So, the speech intruded on his present way of thinking and got him to change it. Therefore, since the use of the word conforms to one of the valid definitions, one can argue that it is not a metaphor, since poking in this sense is literally applicable to the mind of the listener.

I tend to agree with the latter argument. If it is a metaphor, it is certainly a weak one, since it doesn't depart in any dramatic way from a literal definition of the word.

Here's a stronger metaphor for comparison purposes. "I fell through the trapdoor of your eyes" is without doubt a metaphor, for starters. One may literally fall through a trapdoor, but clearly a pair of eyes doesn't possess a trapdoor to fall through. Also, there is a clear metaphorical meaning behind the statement: it means that you were unexpectedly trapped (mentally and/or emotionally) when you looked into someone's eyes, much in the same way that you would physically be trapped if you had inadvertently stepped through a trapdoor and fallen to the room below. There's also the feeling that looking into the eyes has caused some pain or injury, given that falling through a trapdoor can be understood to cause the same. This shows that a metaphor can be a powerful literary device--one metaphor can convey many levels of meaning in a succinct manner.

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  • Wordplay: The phrase might not be "acceptable" to some people; some people might poke fun at it. Jun 13 '14 at 4:08
  • It's a little unusual, but not difficult to understand. "Because of the poke in" would be another way of putting it.
    – BobRodes
    Jun 13 '14 at 4:18
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The line between definition and simple-metaphor is not always black-and-white. I have broken this down into some specific questions/answers that might help you.

Is it perfectly understandable? Yes. Even if one isn't a walking dictionary, one can consider the metaphorical sense of it. The line between definition and simple-metaphor is be a spectrum. (See next point.)

Are 2nd, 3rd, 4th definitions of some words based on metaphor? Yes. The line between definition and word-as-metaphor is ultimately a popularity contest. The first metaphorical usage of a word (or any other non-standard usage for that matter) is just that: metaphorical. If it becomes ubiquitous, then it's considered part of the standard definition.

Is it an idiom? No. Google search shows this is used in many ways, mostly physical: "at the poke of". But if the author is famous, this line becomes famous, and everyone starts using it like that, it (theoretically, but not likely) could become an idiom!

Why "poke"? I might conjecture the author's use of "poke" was to express a personal/emotional link to Obama. The author feels moved by Obama. The point made in the speech was not just a point; it was a call to action. The author considers Obama his/her mentor. A mentor may poke someone to move in a positive direction, and it's in this sense that this particular meaning of "poke" is more quickly understood.

Is this the best prose in the world? Absolutely not. But then, it doesn't have to be; I don't know the context. In informal spoken English, it's acceptable. If it's an answer to a live interview question or an unscripted speech by the person to an audience, the stress to say something quick is even higher, and the person may settle for "poke" which is close to point and prod. "At the ummm (what is that word __blank__ of Obama's speech... point/prod/poke? prod of Obama's speech? no that's not right... point of Obama's speech? No.. it moved me... quick I have to say something!) poke of Obama's speech..."

What would be better? That's a matter of style of course. If this quote is lifted from a famous artist's best selling book, then who cares? But for fun, let's "play editor/critic". The use of "poke" is ironically informal in talking about inspiration to pursue higher education based on a presidential speech. Something like the following might be better:

  • Original: "I felt I had to get a college degree at the poke of Obama's speech about higher education being essential in this globalised economy."
  • I felt a strong prod by Obama to get a college degree when he talked about higher education being essential in this globalised economy.
  • I felt personally compelled by Obama to persue a college degree when he talked about higher education being essential in this globalised economy.
  • When he talked about higher education being essential in this globalised economy, I felt personally compelled by Obama to persue a college degree. (Note how putting the long subordinate clause first makes this sentence easier to read than the prior sentence. But it also delays the reference of "he"; that may or may not be a problem, but this would be nicely resolved if it were previously understood to be about Obama.)

Note: I consider this an addendum/addition/complimentary to @BobRodes' excellent answer without which this post would not exist.

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  • "Ultimately a popularity contest" is a good way of putting it.
    – BobRodes
    Jun 13 '14 at 4:19
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This is neither an idiom nor is it an idiomatic usage of the word poke. I think it's simply a poorly worded sentence.1

Let's assume this is a sentence in a college entrance essay answering "Why do you want to go to college?" For reference again, the original author (OA) said, "I felt I had to get a college degree at the poke of Obama's speech about higher education being essential in this globalized economy."2 Now the "good thing" about this assumption is that it's representative of many such sentence constructions found in college entrance essays. But the "bad thing" about this assumption is that it's representative of many such sentence constructions found in college entrance essays.

This is poorly worded and poke is being used incorrectly. There's no such thing as "the poke of a speech". Also, the sentence runs too heavy at the end.

Like you said, "inspired to get a higher education" is the basic message. Does poke add any meaning? One might speculate that the original author (OA) was being metaphorical to mean "challenged to...". But why not just say that then? See, the danger here is we could just be finding a coincidental pattern where none exists, like a Rorschach_test. Or maybe more like finding some meaning while watching a thousand monkeys typing for a thousand seconds. "Hey I just found a meaning in this monkey typing! I'm wasting my time!" Since there are other (various) problems with the sentence, I just don't have the confidence that the OA was attempting to weave a metaphorical masterpiece. And poke has so many negative connotations that it's just not a good metaphor to make.

Unless... that's what the OA meant. Maybe the OA had no initiative and didn't really feel inspired or challenged -- merely poked into action. It could be seen as a little comical: there's no greater reason for going to college other than (being poked by) the realization that the global economy requires a higher education. What about the time when the local economy required a higher education to get a good job? What about passion for learning? (Oh my gosh now you've got me on the college != job topic. That's a different story.)

There's another possibility. The OA's idiolect includes the following idiom:

  • Idiolect Definition/Idiom: the poke of something said - The challenging, motivating, or just downright irritating effect that something said has upon a person that makes them want to get off the couch and do something productive."

1. Note: I consider this an addendum/addition/complimentary to @BobRodes' excellent answer without which my prior deleted post would not have existed, without which this post would not exist.

2. Yes, I know the sentence could be interpreted as a post-college explanation for going to college. But given the problems with the sentence, that made me wonder what the OA's pre-college grammar and style would have been like, and I just didn't want to think about that.

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I think the expression would use the word "prodded" to convey the same metaphorical sense as "poke."

I felt prodded to get a college degree by Obama's speech about higher education being essential in this globalized economy.

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