This week Orin Hargraves posted an illuminating essay on his Visual Thesaurus blog in tribute to the designation of 2015 as International Year of Light. Light, says Hargraves is “one of the most productive concepts for metaphor in English.”
Metaphors about light relate not just to our dependence on light for seeing (“light of day”; “leave a light on for me”), but, more profoundly, on light as a fount of understanding (“shed light,” “puts a new light on the matter,” “I see, . . .”). By contrast, dark suggests not just not seeing, but also not understanding (“in the dark,” “unenlightened,” “a cloudy perception”). No surprise, then, that the original meaning of “obscure” was “dark, opaque, gloomy.”
I picked up my copy of Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, then found Hargraves consulted them on this matter, too. The two linguists cluster these and many similar metaphors under the rubric “Understanding is seeing; ideas are light sources; discourse is a light-medium.” Their examples include “What is your outlook on that? I view it differently. Now I’ve got the whole picture. It was a murky discussion.”
The relevant metaphors extend from direct references to light and dark to more indirect ones (“point of view”; “a transparent argument”; “lamp of knowledge”; “it dawned on her”; versus “someone not too bright”; “he’s a dim bulb”) and once you start looking for them, you find them embedded everywhere. In fact, Hargraves says, “there is hardly a noun, verb, or adjective in English with a core meaning arising from light and vision that cannot be used in metaphoric extension to depict knowledge and understanding.” And, to a great extent, the obverse. The full essay is a great read. Enjoy!
A random closing thought, but is it possible that birthday candles are a subconscious but resonant metaphor for the accumulation of understanding gained with each passing year?