The Compulsive Copyeditor

January 24, 2014

Metaphor Deafness

This kind of thing bothers me perhaps more than it should, and I wonder if it bothers anyone else:

Even though the rules may be simple, the pathway through the cosmos to you or me is laden with twists and turns.

(Never mind that the author had originally written “the pathway . . . to you or I”; that’s a whole other topic.)

“Laden with twists and turns.” Laden? That means loaded, burdened. I don’t know about you, but this sentence makes me visually see a person carrying an armload of curved segments of toy-train track, or a bundle of sinuous slides from the old board game “Chutes and Ladders.”

There are metaphors hidden, often not very deeply hidden, in the etymologies of lots of our words, especially verbs. Most of those metaphors are physical, and boil down to a simple repertoire of objects and actions. We “weigh” a decision, we “grasp” an idea. The metaphors are a little more hidden in Latinate words than in Anglo-Saxon ones — “comprehend” — but it’s just a translation of the same thing. A monkey has a “prehensile” tail; it grasps.

Language is very physical to me, and I see and feel a kind of cartoon of these actions within abstractions. So when someone writes something like “laden with twists and turns,” it bothers me.

Another example: After looking at pond water, Antony van Leeuwenhoek looked under his microscope at some scrapings from

the fascinating, but rarely embraced, nooks and crannies of the human mouth.

I know what the writer is trying to say: that no one (except a dentist or dental hygienist) exactly rushes to meet the yucky inside of the human mouth with . . . er . . . open arms. But how exactly would you embrace a nook, or put your arms around a cranny?

I call this “metaphor deafness.” A writer is using language as pure abstraction, amnesic about its origins, cut from its corporeal roots. It hurts in a Frankenstein’s-monster kind of way, dragging along severed body parts, stitching together a mental action out of mismatched physical ones.

Am I crazy? Sometimes I think I drive writers crazy, making them use not just any abstraction with the right meaning, but one that also has the right action in its bones.

Other examples? I regret now that I haven’t been collecting them, but I will from now on.

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