Metaphors, dilemmas, and dictionaries

I have three new posts to report from my monthly language column at Macmillan Dictionary.

We’re keen as mustard for condiment words’ explores extended uses of words such as salty, saucy, and vinegar:

Metaphors are part and parcel of English. Language lets us map the world around us, and metaphors are an important way of doing this. We take an image or idea from one domain and apply it in another, extending its use. This often takes the form of a physical idea being expressed in a figurative way.

Food is one such domain. The language of food is rich and varied, and refers to very common and tangible feelings and experiences. So food words lend themselves well to metaphorical use. So well, in fact, that we can take one small section of food – condiments – and find an array of these metaphors in use.

Resolving a usage dilemma’ examines the debate over the meaning of dilemma, whose first use in English, in the 16thC, was rhetorical:

Within decades, dilemma was being used in more general ways. Shakespeare, in All’s Well That Ends Well, has Parolles say: ‘I will presently pen down my dilemmas, encourage myself in my certainty’. From the early sense of a choice between two undesirable options, it came to mean a choice between several such options, then simply a difficult situation or predicament.

This was too much for linguistic conservatives, who felt the word was being unduly weakened.

Finally, ‘How to use (or misuse) a dictionary’ describes some of the many uses for dictionaries beyond simply checking definitions:

Dictionaries offer lots of other information about words and phrases, including their pronunciation, secondary senses, grammatical category, inflections, and use in the language, shown through example sentences.

A dictionary may also provide synonyms, etymology, and information about a word’s frequency in the language. Readers looking for one particular thing may end up browsing an entire page or clicking through to other entries, curious about the many facets of a word and the different relationships it can have with the language. Serendipity abounds.


9 Responses to Metaphors, dilemmas, and dictionaries

  1. Chips Mackinolty says:

    Love the condiment discussion. In Australia, salty can also describe language that is generally expletive-laden, and not just referring to sex.

    Similarly to Marmite, the Australian version–Vegemite–also attracts the descriptor “something that people tend to strongly like or strongly dislike” though, due to a radio advertising jingle from the 1950s, the phrase “happy little vegemites” can be applied generally to happy kids beyond the children actually eating toast and Vegemite for brekkie.

    Do you have “happy little marmites”?

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks, Chips. I’m guessing the video below is the jingle you’re thinking of. Marmite is a British thing that hasn’t really spread (sorry) to Ireland, though I’m sure it has a few fans here. A Google search for “happy little marmites” shows a handful of examples, compared to 20k or so for “happy little vegemites”, so they exist but in small numbers.

  2. astraya says:

    Chips beat me to it!

    “Happy little vegemites” can also be used ironically.

    For a while, Vegemite was called “Parwill” – geddit?

  3. Chips Mackinolty says:

    @ astraya
    You should be taken out the back paddock and given a lead injection for that!

  4. Chips Mackinolty says:

    Never knew that! Ah well, more trivia to cram in! Thanks for that …

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