2017

Now collecting metaphors for June 2018. Till then:

Let your reach exceed your grasp,

or what’s a metaphor?

Gary Karasik*

*With a cordial bow to Robert Browning.

 

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Race against time

You can’t race against time – any more than a runner can race against the racetrack. A fish cannot outswim the sea, nor can a bird fly above the atmosphere.

However, it is possible to imagine a race against the clock. On the day Roger Bannister ran a mile in under four minutes (May 6, 1954), he circled the track faster than a clock’s second hand swept around its circle. Even so, though Bannister beat the clock, he did not outrace time. Crossing the finish line, he was 3:59.4 minutes older than when the race started.

Consider an alternative scenario:

Time is a train, heading to Buffalo.

A runner in the caboose advances from car to car toward the locomotive, moving toward Buffalo faster than time itself. The runner climbs onto the cowcatcher in front and, with a hypothetical leap, arrives in Buffalo before the train of time – an achievement of infinite phenomenological significance but, alas, a very brief moment of victory (even Bannister got to hold his record for 46 days).

Is time like a train? Or is it more like a river, which is already joined to the sea before any boat can begin racing downstream?

In a search of Google Books, the earliest instance of “race against time” occurs in 1788, when the author of The Annual Register, Or a View of the History, Politics, and Literature for the Year, promises he will write unhurriedly.

Photo: Karl Stull

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I prepared the way by congratulating him upon solving the Gordian knot of the Dutch difficulties by his keen judgment without the sword.

– Alvise Valaresso, Venetian ambassador to Britain (1622)

The story of the Gordian knot tells how Alexander the Great dealt with a challenge that had defied all comers for centuries: a knot so complicated it could not be untied. It was hard to know even where to begin, since both ends of the rope were hidden inside the knot’s coils. Alexander cut the knot with a stroke of his sword, and was credited ever after with innovative thinking.

It was a meathead’s solution, of course – like solving gridlock with an air strike.

A knot is one of humankind’s most elegant technologies, using the flexibility of rope, and its ability to turn back upon itself, to resist the force that would pull the knot apart. The harder the pull, the tighter the knot holds. It’s a very fit metaphor for the kinds of problems we face in an interdependent world. Ambassador Valaresso paid James I a high compliment in saying the king had found a way to lessen tensions without a shortcut to violence.

Photo: Monkey’s fist knot (tied with a metal weight inside to facilitate throwing that end of the rope, to an approaching boat, for example); wincingdevil.com

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[I]nvolving yourself in the life of a great liar…is a swan dive through a mirror into a whirlpool.

– WALTER KIRN, Blood Will Out (2014)

Behold Kirn’s triple metaphor – with three uncanny images in series. The notion of motion (falling through space) holds the images together. On the way down, the mirror reminds us of the backwards world of Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Saw There. Past the pane, a whirlpool swirls reality in yet another way – an aquatically plausible/psychologically inevitable end to a long, dangerous dive.

Triple metaphors are rare, and seldom elegant. Here is an example uttered by yours truly in the heat of discussion in January 2017:

We’re trying to unravel this puzzle with the wrong tools.

Next level: Is a quadruple metaphor possible in real-world English? Considering the swan in “swan dive” as an embedded metaphor, you could credit Kirn with a quad.

Photo: R.M. Stigersand at the 1948 Olympic Games, National Media Museum (UK) via Wikipedia

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What Plants Sense and “Say” May Impact the Future of Weed Control

– news item from the Weed Science Society of America

Agriculture Victoria (agriculture.vic.gov.au), adapted by Karl Stull

Parasitic plants detect preferred victims by their chemistry. When the stringy strangling weed called dodder “smells” tomato, it knows it has found a home. After detection comes a kind of conversation, according to researchers at Virginia Tech. Dodder and its host exchange information at the cellular level. That is, bits of messenger RNA from each plant turn up in the other’s cells. The plants “share” information, in the sense that mRNA code is copied and available to both.

This seems to fit the definition of communication under the conduit model. We see (1) sending, (2) a container/carrier, and (3) a coded message inside.

The fact that dodder’s side of the communication may be deceptive and self-serving… well, doesn’t make it untypical of daily communications.

Reference

http://wssa.net/2016/08/what-plants-sense-and-say-may-impact-the-future-of-weed-control/

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The conduit metaphor

People turn to the conduit metaphor in 70 percent of all discussions about how we communicate through language, according to linguist Michael Reddy. The conduit metaphor has four parts:

  • Communication = sending
  • Words = container that is sent
  • Intended meaning = thing put in the container
  • Received meaning = thing extracted by the listener or reader

The “gap” across which words are sent is important – the difference between the minds of the sender and receiver. The gap is the source of all misunderstandings and a lot of pain. It’s also where deception, creativity, and 88.5% of jokes come from.

If we lived in a world where sentences were not “containers” for ideas, we would certainly spend less time looking for hidden meanings in song lyrics. If communications were not so much “sent” as emitted, like pheromones (or even excreted, like spider silk), we might not take everything so personally.

Sci-fi movies about first contact help us consider alternatives to the conduit metaphor. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, an alien shows up speaking perfect proclamatory English, but in Close Encounters of the Third Kind there is a shared-knowing style of communication. The invited see an image of a mountain and discover wordlessly where to go. The musical sequence D-E-C-low C-G is the DNA for understanding everything. Arrival offers another unmechanistic view, owing a debt to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter House 5, in which Billy Pilgrim comes “unstuck in time.”

An episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (“Darmok,” 1991) features aliens whose language utterly befuddles the universal translator – because their vocabulary is based on metaphors.

Illustration: Garth Williams, from Charlotte’s Web; flavorwire.com

Reference

Reddy, M. J. (1979). The conduit metaphor: A case of frame conflict in our language about language. In A. Ortony (Ed.), Metaphor and Thought (pp. 284–310). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Available online at http://www.reddyworks.com/reddy-writes/research/the-conduit-metaphor/132-orginal-1979-conduit-metaphor-article?showall=.

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Argument is war.

– George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (1980)

It often feels like war, with two sides attacking each other’s positions, using facts as ammunition, blowing holes in the other’s logic, giving ground when it’s strategic to do so. (But never admitting defeat.)

Lakoff and Johnson identify several core metaphors like “Argument is war” and list dozens of allied figures of speech – to illustrate how our understanding of the world may be shaped by the imagery in everyday language. Figures of speech prepare us to think in terms such as:

  • Ideas are food (food for thought, hard to swallow, etc.)
  • Love is madness
  • Time is a moving object
  • Big = important
  • Up = good

In a nutshell, their thesis is that language resorts to imagery when a topic can’t be examined directly or defined in concrete terms. We may not understand the stock market, but we can picture going up toward heaven as good.

These influential metaphors are “dead metaphors” (in George Orwell’s phrase), because we are usually not conscious of their imagery when we use worn-out expressions. It might be better to call them undead metaphors (zombie metaphors!), still walking around with their teeth sunk into our brains.

Illustration: Lady Macbeth and husband have a “spirited discussion” about the proper placement of knives; National Education Network (UK), http://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset58044_75-.html

 

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