As viewed by physicists, a solid “consists of a pattern of atoms repeated over and over again…like a large hotel with floor upon floor of identical rooms, identically furnished.”

– Alan Holden and Phylis Singer, Crystals and Crystal Growing (1960)

Waldorf_Astoria_1899Wikipedia

Waldorf-Astoria, 1899, via Wikipedia

This passage asks you to visualize something no human has ever seen – the atomic structure of a molecule – in terms of something invented by humans: a skyscraper. As a description, it would be wholly self-referential, and useless as a unicorn, if the imagined hotel did not connect in some way with real solids in the observable world.

Happily, the image agrees with results from scientific experiments. Materials that physicists classify as solids test positive for hotel-ish qualities: uniformity of material, repetitious structure, and interlocking connections. Experiments would yield very different results if it turned out solids were really more like a loose pile of clothes in a hamper than like the Waldorf-Astoria.

In most ways, admittedly, the hotel comparison is bogus. Atoms are subject to vibrations and attracting forces that would make a hotel uninhabitable. But this is how metaphor works: by describing a thing as if it were something else, which it is not. This is what poets mean when they say they tell “lies” to reveal a truth. This is what fiction is. We imagine what the eye literally cannot see, and sometimes there is truth in it.

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It’s like trying to detect a flea crawling in front of a car headlight, when the car is 100 miles away.

– William Borucki, quoted in “After discovering more than 2,600 planets, NASA’s Kepler space telescope is headed for retirement,” LA Times (October 30, 2018)

This extended simile is very NASA. Highly imaginative and mathematically precise.

A flea, 2mm in length, is about 1/100 the width of a headlight, just as Earth is about 1/100 the diameter of the Sun. A headlight seen from a mile away is a point of light. The Kepler telescope detected stars whose light was as faint as a headlight at 100 miles.

And thereby hangs a paradox. Metaphors and similes are figurative comparisons. As “figures of speech,” they are colorful and offer insight or impact but are not supposed to be taken literally. Being precise about phenomena that are wholly made up (no one is trying to detect fleas on headlights at great distances) puts us in a world of … well, science-fiction.

As a refresher, here are more typical examples of metaphor and simile:

47 Ursa Major c was a needle in a haystack.

Detecting extrasolar planets is like finding a needle in a haystack

The first example is a metaphor, a descriptive statement that is literally untrue but meant to imply a comparison. The second example is a simile, a figurative comparison (literally untrue) in which the comparison is made explicit, usually by use of like or as.

Soak the soil well, like a thunderstorm would.

– 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

I’ve got buns of steel!

– 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

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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Level playing field vs. bargaining table

1919 view of the unlevel field where Abner Doubleday and residents of Cooperstown, NY, invented town ball; baseballhall.org

 

Without a level playing field, labor had little say or clout at the bargaining table. – Richard A. Hogarty, Leon Abbett’s New Jersey (2002)

A playing field and a bargaining table are both flat surfaces for adversarial encounters. You sit at a bargaining table to reach an agreement with an opponent (rather than settling differences by violence). On a level playing field, neither side has an unfair advantage. So the bargaining table and level playing field represent ideals of society – even if, for the sake of clean prose style, one should not ask readers to imagine them both in the same sentence.

The key difference between a bargaining table and a level playing field is that people in business actually sit at tables to bargain. Seldom do they take to a playing field for the sake of quarterly profits. Both are figures of speech: the playing field is a metaphor, and the bargaining table is metonymy.

Metonymy = meta + nym (changed + name)

  • The WHITE HOUSE said it would hold talks with MOSCOW.
  • The PEN is mightier than the SWORD.
  • Give them a big HAND, and lend me your EARS.

Metonymy is a nickname or shorthand form of reference, typically using an easy-to-visualize detail as an icon for something that is abstract or complex. In the examples, a building stands for a president’s administration and a city name stands for the Russian government; a writing tool stands for the expression of ideas in general, and a weapon stands for war; body parts stand for applause and attention. The figures in metonymy are always logically related to the subject they represent (bargaining table is literally where negotiations take place).

A metonym is an alternative name; a metaphor is a comparison.

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Simile vs. metaphor

 

Consider three sentences, based on a comment by Morley Safer on the radio show Car Talk:

  1. The Renault in my garage is a crouching tiger.
  2. The Renault in my garage is like a crouching tiger.
  3. The Renault in my garage is like a BMW.

Sentences 2 and 3 both use the word “like” but are very different kinds of comparison. Sentence 3 is fact-oriented; 2 is imaginative, an example of figurative language.

Both 1 and 2 are figurative (they paint a picture). Sentence 2 is a simile because it uses “like” (or “as”) to make an explicit comparison. Sentence 1 is a metaphor because the comparison is implied rather than stated.

The difference between a metaphor and a simile is usually a minor matter, hardly worth noticing. In a few cases, a simile may come across as less passionate, more detached, because of the “like” or “as” phrasing:

METAPHOR: When I saw her, my heart caught fire.

SIMILE: When I saw her, it was as though my heart caught fire.

In a general discussion of figurative language, the term “metaphor” may encompass all such comparisons – similes as well as metaphors. During Metaphor Awareness Month, we keep an eagle eye out for figurative comparisons of any stripe.

Photo: Karl Stull; tiger from imgur.com/Kipling Did It Best

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