Containers of jokes and metaphors

The world is emblematic (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

On Twitter I follow an account called preschoolgems, which posts some of the things spoken by children attending a pre-school where, presumably, the account holder works. For instance:

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.

11 Responses to Containers of jokes and metaphors

  1. wisewebwoman says:

    “Once, a long time ago, I had the whole world, and then I lost it.”

    Oh my. And so say we all, little one.


  2. LMMXI says:

    Glad to find something new on Twitter (preschoolgems). Reminds me of the work of Brian Andreas:

    “this is an American unicorn which explains why it has 2 horns & they’re painted to match the tile in its bathroom” etc.

    Glad I found this blog, also. Keep it up. :)

  3. Stan says:

    WWW: Wise beyond their years. I hope the kid retains a memory of what was lost.

    LMMXI: Yes, they’re like lines from a story, with a direct and guileless interest in the moment. (And thanks; I will!)

  4. James Reilly says:

    Interesting post Stan, I love those preschool gems. As it happens, I came upon this NYT article by Robert Sapolsky just the other day, covering similar territory:
    “Despair has stopped listening to music. Anger sharpens kitchen knives at the local supermarket. Beauty wears a gold shawl and sells seven kinds of honey at the flea market. Longing studies archeology.”

  5. Out of the mouths of babes. I love them!

  6. Stan says:

    James: Thanks for the link; I remember enjoying that article last year, and I happily read it again. It’s amazing how much and how often we rely on metaphor, generally without being aware of it at all. One of the most interesting books I’ve read in this area is Terrence Deacon’s The Symbolic Species (two helpful reviews here and here).

    Jams: Glad you enjoyed them! I had to prune the original list of gems, as you can imagine.

  7. Claude says:

    It’s so delightful. I went to read more. I could really connect with: My friend is coming over for dinner tonight but he doesn’t exist. I still play that game. Parfois mon coeur s’ennuie à mort!

    I’m going back for more gems. J’ai soif de fraicheur!
    Merci pour ce poste, cher Stan.

  8. Stan says:

    Cet exemple m’attirait aussi, Claude, bien que je ne joue pas le jeu! Ça m’a fait curieux: qui est l’ami? I’m glad you enjoyed the gems. Some of them are simply a tonic.

  9. […] example of the body-as-container metaphor that stayed with me for weeks until I felt I had to write about it, noting that when a novel metaphor appears – in this instance from a child – it suddenly shows […]

  10. Eleanor says:

    Actually – not just children (the best source of creative ideas *ever*) but also foreigners, who apply the constructs of their own native language to the one they’re in the process of adopting, with illuminating results! Though it also fascinates me when totally abstract concepts can be translated literally word for word across European languages – how did that happen? Who started it?!

    Great article, will also start following @preschoolgems! Thanks! Have got Lakoff’s Metaphors We Live By on the bedside table pile – up next as soon as I’ve finished the current book…

    Englishwoman in the Netherlands with a degree in French…

  11. Stan says:

    That’s a good point, Eleanor. We get so used to the architecture of our native grammar that it becomes invisible to greater and lesser degrees; learning other languages (I used to know a few quite well) throws a light on the structures and idioms we take for granted.

    Thanks for your visit, and enjoy the book!

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