Met Your Metaphor?

In his July “language lounge” column for Visual Thesaurus, lexicographer Orin Hargraves dives in the deep and sometimes murky sea of metaphor. To get us in the mood for the topic, he cites the opening lines of Alfred Noyes’s poem, “The Highwayman.”

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor.

Each of those lines, even though they combine unlike things are easy to picture. As Hargraves says, metaphors are fundamental to “how we make sense of the world and how we integrate new information with things we already know.” We take some aspect of one domain (darkness, sea, ribbon) and apply it to another thing: wind, moon, road. With a well-constructed metaphor, we know almost instantly what aspects of darkness, sea, and ribbon we should apply, ignoring their many other attributes.

Seeing life as a journey is such a prevalent idea, we probably don’t usually perceive it as a metaphor at all. Think of common phrases like: the hero’s journey; the road not taken; a trip to nowhere (waste of time); his first marriage was a detour; on the right path; choosing a hard road; got off on the wrong foot; they crossed paths with . . .; “we’re on the road to romance” (Sinatra). Scholars Lakoff and Johnson believe that metaphors are essentially conceptual and coming up with the language to express them, as in the preceding examples, is secondary. We make inferences from these concepts and guide our lives according to the metaphors that derive from them (“just putting one foot in front of the other”).

But that’s a bit abstract. Hargraves focuses on a particular type of metaphor that most reminds me of a Hollywood pitch session. His examples: Twin Peaks meets Doctor Who; Le Corbusier meets Flash Gordon. Such metaphors assume a broadly shared cultural context between the speaker/writer and the hearer/reader. I assure you that any metaphor where one of the noun phrases referred to a hip-hop star would sail right over my head. Unless the audience can sift out what aspects of the two nouns are being compared, the metaphor doesn’t work on its own.

Hargraves gives an example from fiction (source not named) of what could have been an obscure pairing, but the writer explains it sufficiently to make it work:

“So what do you want in a man?”
“Butch. Beautiful. Brilliant. Captain America meets Albert Schweitzer. Spends all day dashing into (the) fray while making the world safe for democracy. At night, playing Bach cantatas while curing cancer.”

I know next-to nothing about Captain America, but with that explanation, I get it.

For Your Bookshelf
Metaphors We Live By – George Lakoff and Mark Johnson