In meetings — and in many other places, too, but particularly in meetings — people often say “Let’s pull together a straw man to see what everyone thinks about <some idea>.”
What they (obviously) don’t know is that they are mixing idioms. What they mean to say instead is “Let’s float a trial balloon” — something you send up in the air to see if it floats and if anyone shoots it down (and also, perhaps, which way the wind is blowing). It is a perfect metaphor for a prototype idea that you want to test out without committing to it.
What is wrong with saying “Let’s make a straw man?” Well, nothing, unless you happen to know that the “Argument to the Straw Man” is a very specific rhetorical device. When you set up a Straw Man, you make a false target that you claim represents your opponent’s argument, and proceed to argue against it. (The term comes from the “straw men” that were used in bayonet practice for infantry — you can imagine what happens to them after a few minutes.) By arguing against a target you falsely claim represents your opponent’s point, and easily defeating it, you give the appearance of having won the argument. If you were instead arguing against your opponent’s real point, you might well lose — but unless those observing the argument are careful, they might not notice your use of the Straw Man tactic.
Think this is an antiquated device? Hardly — it’s used all the time. When a reporter asks Donald Trump why he won’t compromise with Democrats over the government shutdown, and he responds “The Democrats want open borders! Crime will increase massively if they get their way!”, that is a classic argument to the straw man. Donald Trump has misrepresented what “The Democrats” want, so that he can argue against that thing instead of their real point.
You can see that a Straw Man is almost entirely different from a Trial Balloon, and this is why this malapropism drives me so insane.
While I’m ranting, let’s take on “divide and conquer,” which people say when they mean something like “Let’s the two of us split up and attack our enemy from either side.” Unfortunately this means exactly the opposite of what they think. “Divide and conquer” is actually what you do when you try to keep control over a group of people by encouraging them to argue amongst themselves, thus “dividing” them. From the Free Dictionary: “This expression has its origin in the Latin phrase `divide et impera’. It describes one of the tactics which the Romans used to rule their empire.” It’s a very effective tactic, I’m sure, but it’s not at all what the speaker meant in this case.
Things like this shouldn’t drive me so nuts because I’m really not a language snob. I think it’s the fact that the idioms really mean nearly the opposite of what is intended that drives me so nuts. I’ve learned, however, not to try to point the error out when people make it — they think I’m arguing to the straw man.