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

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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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Drink the Kool-Aid.

More than 900 people drank the Flavor Aid in Jonestown (Guyana) in 1978 and died, a third of them children. Flavor Aid was the usual soft drink at the commune, and it was used to mix tubs of a grape-flavored cocktail, with sedatives and cyanide, at the mass suicide.

If people now say “drink the Kool-Aid” rather than “drink the Flavor Aid,” the marketing folks at Kraft Foods have only themselves to blame. Thousands of hours of television advertising (jolly pitcher of punch bouncing in on a children’s party) prepared a generation to hear the irony in today’s intonation of “drink the Kool-Aid,” describing innocents who have been programmed to follow the party line against their own interest. As the jolly pitcher used to say, in that rumbly, let-the-good-times-roll basso: “Oh, yeah!”

By definition, metaphors are fast and loose with facts.

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Flipping the bird

The middle-finger gesture known as “the bird” resembles a goose in flight, with its long neck extending forward and wings bundled for a moment at its sides. The extended finger can also be seen as a penis and the knuckles as two testicles.

However, the gesture seldom involves any metaphorical intent. People who flip you off are not thinking of avian anatomy. They’re not even thinking of human male anatomy. You see why Metaphor Awareness is so important.

Viewers of Young Frankenstein may recall the “bird” can be invoked in the Yiddish term schwanzstucker. Click here or copy the link, and notice the eye-acting in this scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QuHw5ivCs1A

(Posted on FB June 16, 2015)