The world is emblematic (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
“I was born on a space needle.”
“A clock is a house for time.”
“Your eyes look extra magical today.”
“I keep trying to go off in the distance.”
“There’s a wolf in my tummy and a porcupine in my bum.”
“Once, a long time ago, I had the whole world, and then I lost it.”
“What was the first word ever?”
“Plants are more important than games.”
You get the idea. Some are amusing but unremarkable, others irresistible; most are pretty charming, fresh, and effortlessly imaginative.
A few weeks ago I read the following gem: “One day I will tell the last of my jokes and then I will have to fill my body up with jokes again.”
As well as amusing me, it reminded me of a book I’d recently read: George Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. The book covers some of the same ground as the better-known Metaphors We Live By, a shorter work Lakoff co-wrote with the philosopher Mark Johnson. Both books make the case that our conceptual and linguistic systems are intrinsically and deeply metaphorical.
Metaphors are vital for the communication of ideas, especially complex or abstract ones, e.g., covers some of the same ground. Countless everyday metaphors are rooted in how we physically sense, experience, and orient in our environments. A familiar example of this is how we conceptualise our bodies as three-dimensional containers – vessels with boundaries through which things pass in and out.
Many metaphors are based on this simple concept. One of the ways we understand and talk about emotions is as substances, often fluids, in these containers. When we are sad we feel empty inside. Recovering, we are filled with relief, and may even brim with joy. If we lose our temper we cannot contain our anger; we need to get it out of our system. The language of eating evokes the analogy closely: when we overeat, we are stuffed, fit to burst, with no room for more.
We rely automatically on such expressions. The associations that inspired them are effectively invisible, integral to the flows of speech and thought – inevitably, given their ubiquity. Metaphor is a way for us to relate to (grasp) abstract ideas in terms of simpler, more concrete ones; it is pervasive in, and indispensable to, our language and our mental activity.
So when a novel example appears – from a child, say – suddenly and clearly it shows the scaffolding beneath the structure of our imaginations.
Emerson, in his famous essay Nature (1836), remarked on our ancient habit of using words we have “borrowed from some material appearance”; he said this tendency “may be daily observed in children . . . As we go back in history, language becomes more picturesque, until its infancy, when it is all poetry”. The child I quoted might run out of jokes now and then, but not of poetic metaphors.