Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Meanings Bent and Borrowed

"There was a message on the machine," said my wife, "but there wasn't any message." I knew exactly what she meant: the robotic female voice had said, "You have one message," then there was a little click indicating that the caller had hung up, then nothing. All this my wife had summed up succinctly in one utterance by using the term "message" in two senses (an indicator that someone had called; the information the caller conveyed).

The ability to shift, smoothly and almost unnoticed, between two related meanings of a word is one of the remarkable features of human communication. When the shift occurs within the same word repeated in the same sentence, as in my wife's remark, we experience the momentary confusion of paradox, followed by the relief of understanding. Sometimes we're convinced we've grasped something almost profound. Several generations by now have quoted Gertrude Stein's remark about Oakland – "There is no there there" – applying it to everything from daytime television to existentialist philosophy.

But of course the ability to create new meanings by repurposing a word (or several words) is one of our most powerful linguistic resources. The Greeks had a word for it, or so we like to think. Some years ago, in Athens, I noticed that many trucks on the city streets had the word Metafora emblazoned on the side. "Ah," I thought, "such a poetic and philosophic people, these Greeks, who imbue even their commercial lives with the emblems of rhetoric." But a little further inquiry revealed that the word metafora in modern Greek means simply "transport" as in trucking. The element meta is often used to denote a change of state, and phora comes from a verb meaning "to carry." So the Latin elements trans and port accurately render the literal meaning of carrying over. The term metaphor as we use it is thus a metaphor.

Let us, metaphorically, drill down. What actually is metaphor? It is, said George Puttenham in 1589, "to call the top of a tree, or of a hill, the crowne of a tree or of a hill ... and because such terme is not applyed naturally to a tree, or to a hill, but is transported from a mans head to a hill or tree, therefore it is called by metaphore, or the figure of transport." In short, it is the application of one term or phrase to a new object, because of a perceived similarity. The purpose of metaphor is often to clarify an idea, and sometimes to make it more vivid, by providing a physical analogy: "She looked daggers at me."

Our everyday language is rife with metaphor, much of it ready-made: "It's just the tip of the iceberg"; "She's a knock-out"; "Close but no cigar." (Do you still envision a fair-goer throwing balls at a target to win a stogie?) Every now and then somebody garbles two or more well-worn metaphors with loony ingenuity. A recent Boston Globe story offered this:

"Domestic violence is the third rail," said the judge, who is not involved in the case and asked not to be named. "You usually throw the kitchen sink at it."

Judicious he may have been, but he was wise, I think, to withhold his name.

True, metaphors can enliven our speech, can make it more vivid and now and then offer sudden illumination, as when one speaks of being "caught in the winds of memory." But the dangers are all around us. I've suggested two of them: triteness and the real possibility of looking ridiculous by mangling metaphors or placing them so that their associations contradict each other. But there's a third peril, more insidious than the others. A metaphor can be subtly persuasive, and we may start to think that if X resembles Y, then what is true of Y must also be true of X. Political and social discussions are often conducted by metaphor. One person suggests that a good way to reduce muggings would be to put more cops on the beat. Someone responds that that's "a slippery slope," and now the community worries about creating a police state. But is it a slope? And is it slippery? We don't really know, but the bare assertion of a kinship between a complex social situation and a somewhat idealized physical analog can have a chilling effect (metaphor again) on the discussion.

My advice to aspiring writers: make your own metaphors when inspiration strikes. But be suspicious of those that have been in common use for a while. They may not really apply in a new context, and while they may appear somnolent and harmless, they have a way of waking suddenly to bite you (metaphorically, of course).

Jan Schreiber is a poet, critic, and translator. Over a varied career as an editor, social scientist, software entrepreneur, and literary scholar he has written frequently on American poets and the problems of understanding and evaluating modern poetry. His latest book is Sparring with the Sun: Poets and the Ways We Think about Poetry in the Late Days of Modernism.

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Thursday September 12th 2013, 2:54 PM
Comment by: keith M. (Kula, HI)
It is delightful to read (again) of the importance of the metaphor in human communication. The essay resonates with the thought of the late Owen Barfield, one of C.S. Lewis's best friends. In Barfield's seminal book, "Poetic Diction" he describes the metaphor as having the potential of "expanding consciousness." (W.H. Auden and T. S. Eliot highly praised this early writing of Barfield.)

You might also be interested in "History In English Words." In it Barfield makes a strong case for the changing meanings of words being evidence of the "evolution of consciousness."

Keith Mac of Kula, HI

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