Book spine poem: A Pagan Place

December 7, 2013

A new bookmash. It has been weeks since I made one.

[click to enlarge]

stan carey - bookmash book spine poetry - a pagan place

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A Pagan Place

The idea of prehistory, a pagan place –
Land of milk and honey, the white goddess;
Cows, pigs, wars and witches,
Women, fire, and dangerous things.

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Again this one is top-heavy with non-fiction – I tend to notice the ratio only after putting them together. See my previous one on language evolution for stats on fiction vs. nonfiction.

Thanks to the authors: Glyn Daniel, Edna O’Brien, Bríd Mahon, Robert Graves, Marvin Harris, and George Lakoff; and to Nina Katchadourian for the idea.

For more like this, see my archive of book spine poems (25 at last count), which includes links to other people’s. If you want to join in the fun, do – send me a photo or put a link in the comments. Remarks about, say, my inconsistent use of the serial comma are also welcome.


Containers of jokes and metaphors

February 14, 2011

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.


The ubiquity of metaphor

September 14, 2010

Metaphor lives a secret life all around us. – James Geary

The conventional meaning of metaphor, familiar from school lessons in poetry and literature, is a description of something in terms of another – a representative or symbolic relation based on similarity. But in a more general sense, metaphor can be considered much more fundamental and prevalent, no mere literary flourish but the very stuff of language and thought. (There’s an example: metaphor as a substance, or, more generically, ideas as objects.)

In Metaphors We Live By (1980), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson contend that metaphor pervades not only language but everyday thought and action. They describe metaphor as a matter of “conceptual structure” that “involves all the natural dimensions of our experience, including aspects of our sense experiences: colour, shape, texture, sound, etc.” Lakoff and Johnson supply many examples (e.g., argument is war, life is a journey, happy is up, less is down), each supported by examples of familiar expressions. A selection is here.

Julian Jaynes felt similarly. He considered metaphor to be central to consciousness, describing it as “the very constitutive ground of language” in a controversial book published in 1976. According to Jaynes, consciousness “operates by way of analogy, by way of constructing an analog space with an analog ‘I’, that can observe that space, and move metaphorically in it.” Spatialisation is characteristic of this practice: concepts that lack spatial qualities are given them in our minds for easier handling – time, for example, or ideas themselves. (Handling concepts is another metaphor.)

The quote at the top of this post comes from a talk in which James Geary reaches similar though less philosophical conclusions. Metaphors are everywhere – Geary says we utter about six a minute – but this goes largely unnoticed because they hide in plain hearing in our common speech. Signifiers become hidden in words whose familiarity then obscures their origins. Take for example the ubiquitous be, whose roots (Proto-Indo-European *bheu-, *bhu-, ‘grow’, ‘become’) reveal its close connection to the body as a process.

“Abstract words,” wrote Jaynes, “are ancient coins whose concrete images in the busy give-and-take of talk have worn away with use.” That’s a metaphor to leave by.

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[more posts about metaphor]