The Compulsive Copyeditor

May 1, 2014

Fossil Mixed Metaphors

Most high-flown abstract words started life as physical, material metaphors, colorful analogies between actions of the body and actions of the mind. (To “deliberate” is to weigh.) The root words for those physical actions still lie buried inside their abstract descendants. Because I feel the roots of words (do I need a root canal?), it really bothers me when abstractions are put together whose underlying physical actions do not go together at all, but clash absurdly.

The example I’m looking at right now is “precipitated a quagmire.” You can’t do that, somehow.

“Quagmire,” like most Anglo-Saxon words, is a much “younger” abstraction than the Latinate “precipitate.” That is, you can still hear the metaphor loud and clear. A “quagmire” is barely one step removed from a quaking bog in which you would “bog down” (heh) and flounder: a slower sort of quicksand. In Latinate words, on the other hand, the physical root is hidden and forgotten, unless you take an obsessive kind of interest in these things. “Precipitate” is, thanks to the indispensible Online Etymology Dictionary, “from Latin praecipitatus, past participle of praecipitare ‘to throw or dive headlong,’ from praeceps ‘steep, headlong, headfirst’ (see precipice). Meaning ‘to cause to happen, hurry the beginning of’ is recorded from 1620s. Chemical sense is from 1620s; meteorological sense first attested 1863.”

Look at the layers of metaphor in that abstraction! It’s a thing of beauty, like a first-rate geological dig site. It goes back to “prae-ceps,” “first-head,” and a precipice is something you fall off headfirst. It’s interesting too that the chemical sense and the metaphorical sense (“to cause to happen, hurry the beginning of”) date to the same time. What is the physical action behind that metaphorical sense of the word? Is it the chemical meaning — when a solid suddenly forms out of a solution — or is it getting something rolling by pitching it downhill?


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.

June 29, 2011

Intelligence Agency To Stockpile . . . Metaphors?

Filed under: figures of speech — amba12 @ 5:56 pm

Is this a joke?

Researchers with the US Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity [1] want to build a repository of metaphors. You read that right.  Not just American/English metaphors mind you but those of Iranian Farsi, Mexican Spanish and Russian speakers.

Why metaphors? “Metaphors have been known since Aristotle as poetic or rhetorical devices that are unique, creative instances of language artistry (for example: The world is a stage; Time is money). Over the last 30 years, metaphors have been shown to be pervasive in everyday language and to reveal how people in a culture define and understand the world around them,” IARPA says. . . .

In the end the program should produce a methodology, tools and techniques together with a prototype system that will identify metaphors that provide insight into cultural beliefs. It should also help build structured framework that organizes the metaphors associated with the various dimensions of an analytic problem and build a metaphor repository where all metaphors and related information are captured for future reference and access, IARPA stated.

Wait a minute, wait a minute.  “TIME IS MONEY” is NOT A METAPHOR!!!  @#&^!! government!  Can’t get anything right!

But wait — the entire Internet thinks “Time is money” is an example of a metaphor.  In fact, it’s the Internet’s favorite example of a metaphor.  I maintain it is something else, for which the term is lost in ancient books of the subtle art of rhetoric.

I didn’t find it there.  Can anybody help?

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