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

Let there be . . .

birthday cake, candles

(photo: pixabay)

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?