– Psalms 109:18 (New International Version)
Psalm 109 indicts an enemy for cursing, but first has these choice words to say about him:
May his days be few…
May his children be wandering beggars…
May creditors seize all he has…
May the sin of his mother never be blotted out…
This psalm is unusual in having a very specific problem to talk about that anybody can relate to: someone is saying bad things about me. The poet feels the scorn of others, who shake their heads when he passes. They brush him off “like a locust.” He is being made to “fade away like an evening shadow.” The imagery is sharply seen and felt, seeming more personal than the generic green pastures and gold regalia of other psalms.
The metaphor of the garment, too, is personal in a subtle way, noticing how deliberately assumed guises can reshape identity (like Prufrock’s “face to meet the faces that you meet”). Just as the water that you drink gets into your body chemistry, so the words that you use habitually will infiltrate your character. The evil in those words gets into the marrow of your bones.
Photo: From an engraving of Elijah denouncing Ahab
Though phrased like a simile, this expression is the opposite of metaphorical. Not only does it not involve an imaginative comparison, it denies the very possibility of comparison. Anything you can imagine has to be based to some extent on something you have seen or imagined before.
And yet, though it is not metaphorical, it isn’t literal either. When someone says – to pick an example at random – that North Korea will experience “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” the understood meaning is opposite to what the words literally say: that is, the fire and fury will be very like fire and fury the world has seen before, but with greater fieriness and furiousness than in the past two administrations. So like doesn’t mean “similar to”; it just means >.
Thanks to my friend Gary Karasik, who suggested “Like nothing you’ve ever seen before!” as a tagline for Metaphor Awareness Month.
Photo: Unknown, “Portrait of Something Similar to Nothing”
– Care instructions for a potted cactus
It’s strange how we live with plants yet have so little understanding of what they want. We use metaphors to visualize what we cannot see, what’s happening with them beneath the surface.
The “water like a thunderstorm” principle has two compelling components: 1) easy to do, and 2) endorsed by Mother Nature. But we should keep in mind that Mother Nature is usually not a nurturing parent. Ninety-five percent of species under her care have gone extinct. If one of her babies can’t make a go of it, her strategy is to produce a lot more babies. Or, if conditions are too harsh, she may give up and allow an environment to become a desert.
In contrast, members of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America are helicopter parents, hovering over their little ones. They advise against watering like a thunderstorm, because over-watering may “drown” the roots. This imagery helps us conceptualize the needs of plants as similar to our own: humans need water every day and air every minute. But there must be something not quite right about the “drowning roots” metaphor. Ask a hydroponic tomato.
Photo: Hydroponic onions, NASA/Wikipedia
– Student to fitness instructor Greg Smithey, 1985
The first baring of buns as a euphemism for buttocks came in the early 1960s. People needed a word that was neither vulgar nor clinical for a part of the body that was until then unmentionable in polite conversation. Context and the dome shape of a bakery bun made it clear which part of the anatomy was being referenced – in a coy, tittering way.
In short order, the metaphor became a dead metaphor (the reference to hamburger toppers faded away). Buns became an everyday synonym for buttocks in a new era, as ideas about the ideal body type for women shifted from soft and curvy to athletic – strong, hard, lean. Shape magazine began publishing in 1981.
In terms of imagery, buns of steel are the antithesis of bakery buns. No one is intimidated when bakery buns enter the room.
Photo: Karl Stull
– 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.
Back to top
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
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=.
Back to top
– 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
Back to top