Don’t Let Sleeping Metaphors Lie

Metaphors describe reality, but they also help create it.

Posted Aug 05, 2010

Language describes reality. That is its primary, most self-evident function. We use words to define for ourselves, and communicate to others, what's going on out there. Less evident, but almost as potent, is language's role in shaping reality. The meaning of what is out there changes with the words we choose to describe it.

Harsh language, for example, can incite and enrage, which is why society, in its quest for order and harmony, often looks to soften words' hard edges: "Bathroom tissue" sells better than "toilet paper;" "putting the cat to sleep" is less stressful than "killing the cat;""The Oscar goes to..." shields fragile egos better than, "The winner is..."

Soft language, however, can itself distort and demean. Feminist theorists realized early how the term "girl" connotes a different set of associations than the term "woman." You can imagine a woman president, but not a girl.

The psychologist Albert Bandura has shown how language can be softened to assuage moral guilt. We can more easily justify a war when dead civilians are "collateral damage," and when killing people becomes, "servicing the target."

Language frames politics, of course. In the struggle to win over the public and brand their positions, those seeking to outlaw abortion became "pro life" and those seeking to keep it legal became "pro choice." Using these terms in any other context will seem weird. ("I'm very pro choice; I love the combination menu at Burger King;" "I'm pro life, that's why I don't wear fur.")

Language illuminates character. On the eve of the six days war, Israel's army chief of staff, Yitzhak Rabin, took the time, upon reading an urgent war memo, to revise the sentence, "Awesome enemy forces are amassing on the Egyptian border," to: "Very large forces..." He was not the excitable sort.

Perhaps the defining feature of human language is metaphor. Words, and the things they describe, become meaningful only in relation to other words and other things described. Metaphors frame reality. And once they take hold, they can become invisible, like the ocean water to the fish--so prevalent as to escape awareness and scrutiny. We accept willy-nilly, for example, the notion of the ‘tax burden' without pausing to consider that tax-paying is also a civic virtue.

Thinking, of course, is a form of language use, as in talking to oneself. And successful metaphors can promote innovative thinking. The engineer Robert Kearns, contemplating his blinking eyelids, invented the intermittent wipers. The Swiss inventor George de Mestral, back from a nature hike, turned his microscope onto the burrs that clung to his furry dog-and the rest is Velcro.

Successful metaphors can facilitate change. The work of psychotherapy often involves an attempt to replace faulty metaphors. A person with a fear of flying may feel reassured if informed that turbulence to a plane is like potholes to a car. Those caught up in a losing struggle may benefit from viewing their situation as a game of Tug-of-War. One way to avoid being dragged into the mud pit is to tug harder; another is to let go of the rope.

To choose your metaphors is to choose the path and tenor of your life (‘path' and ‘tenor' themselves being metaphors, of course). A suffering slave, for example, may decide to frame his problem as "having a mean slave master." This will send him looking for a kind master. Framing the problem as, "having a slave master of any kind" would send him on a very different pursuit, the pursuit of freedom.

Is love a scarce resource, to be guarded and used sparingly lest it be wasted, or a muscle to be exercised vigorously lest it atrophy? Better choose wisely...

Great metaphors can transcend mere utility and become moments of grace and wonder. The late singer Chris Whitley spoke of the human body as, "dust radio." Paul Desmond, the famed Jazz saxophonist, once commented on the feral playing of his peer, Ornette Coleman: "Listening to him play is like living in a house where everything is painted red."

Poetry is the ultimate playground for metaphors. For example, the beloved Israeli poet Yehuda Amichay was practically a metaphor savant. In Amichay's world, the lovers' meeting is, "illusory, like the meeting of sun and sea at evening." An old man's tears are likened to "a phone ringing in an empty house." The sound of a kiss is "like the fluttering of a moth caught between two panes of glass." Spring comes suddenly, "like the taste of blood in the mouth;" a man's life is "blurred like a letter in the rain;" and Jerusalem is "drunk, froth of tourists on her lips."

If your heart doesn't sing upon reading these pearls, then your soul must be as dead as a doorknob.