Those particular misunderstandings don't surprise me any more, but there are always new ones. When I taught my Milton seminar a couple of semesters ago, I had a student ask me what I meant when I referred to the rabbinic tradition that the captive Samson was put out to stud.
"Oh!" I said. "You know: like a racehorse. There's a tradition that he was used to impregnate the Philistine women, so they'd produce warlike sons."The discourses of sex and romance probably do produce metaphors (and euphemisms and ultimately clichés) at a greater rate than others. Lately, the dead or nearly dead metaphors that I've been noticing are endearments. I've taught a couple of pre- or early modern texts this semester that have succeeded in reinvigorating "honey" for me--an endearment that I not only have never used, but have always regarded as particularly cheap and inane. But coming across endearments like "sweet honey-comb" and "sweet honey dear," I realized that, hey! honey is sweet! and good! And that's really a nice thing to call someone!
"Okay," she said. "But put out to stud. . .?"
"When we call a guy a stud, today, we mean he's sexually virile, right?"
My class nodded, uncertainly.
"Well," I said. "When we say that, we're comparing him to a stallion, or uncastrated horse--there's usually only one on a farm, right? The others are mares or geldings."
I paused. No one seemed to have any idea what I was talking about. "I mean, didn't any of you grow up in the country? Okay. Well. Take my word for it. Lesson over!"
Such reinvigorations are pleasurable, but it may be just as well that most endearments are now largely divorced from their metaphorical significance. If you think about them too hard, many aren't just cutesy or tired, but actively icky. I'm profoundly glad that "mommy" and "daddy" are no longer common romantic endearments--though of course we still refer to sugar daddies and mommies in circumstances where we intend to foreground the relational inequity. Even the ubiquitous "baby," though, carries some of the same baggage.
This may be why endearments that are dated enough to seem strange have always been the most appealing to me: various of my female friends and I have gone through periods of addressing each other as "darling," "sweetheart," and "dearest one," and I briefly dated (and was completely charmed by) someone who had an easy, arch way with "buttercup," "honey lamb," and the like. Such usages are always semi-ironic, or at least conscious of their own absurdity--and that's probably what makes them appealing.
So in the absence of evocative metaphors, I suppose there are worse things than dead ones.