Archive for Metaphors

A weekend is not a surface

Last night at dinner, several Americans and a Canadian got into a discussion with an Irishman and an Australian about weekends. Since all of the participants were linguists, the discussion centered on prepositions: Were we having dinner on a weekend in February or at a weekend in February?  The North Americans voted for "on", a choice that the Irishman found preposterous. "A weekend," he observed, "is not a surface."

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David "Semi True" Brooks

David Brooks, "The Progressive Shift", NYT 3/18/2013:

There is a statue outside the Department of Labor of a powerful, rambunctious horse being reined in by an extremely muscular man. This used to be a metaphor for liberalism. The horse was capitalism. The man was government, which was needed sometimes to restrain capitalism’s excesses.

I recently claimed that

David Brooks has an unparalleled ability to shape an intellectually interesting idea into the rhetorical arc of an 800-word op-ed piece. The trouble is, a central part of his genius is choosing the little factoids that perfectly illustrate his points. No doubt he's happy enough to use a true fact if the right one comes to hand, but whenever I've checked, the details have turned out to be somewhere between mischaracterized and invented.

So I thought I'd put in a few minutes today as Mr. Brooks' metaphor-checker. I'll spare you the full "Ask Radio Yerevan" treatment, but here's the gist: Brooks originally wrote that the statue was outside the Department of Labor, and that the horse was capitalism and the man was government; but in fact the statue is outside the Federal Trade Commission, and according to the sculptor, the horse was trade and the man was, well, man. (Or, in these less gendered times, humanity.)

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Orca

Byron York, "What Sank McCain", NRO 11/5/2008:

In January, a few days before the South Carolina Democratic primary, I went to a Barack Obama rally in Columbia with a Republican friend who had never before seen Obama in action. This friend’s reaction: “Oh, s**t.” The super-enthusiastic crowd was about 3,000 strong — no big deal compared to the audiences Obama would later draw in the general election, but several times what John McCain was attracting in South Carolina at the time. My friend said the scene reminded him of the old clip from Jaws, in which the small-town sheriff, seeing how big the shark really is, says, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

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Grammarian's café

At London's Gatwick Airport, I had a very good cup of coffee in a café called Apostrophe. I was thinking that if there is a more perfect name for a place where a traveling grammarian can stop off for an americano, I don't know what it would be. But then I remembered why that is not true.

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Diving deeper into the metaphorical molasses

My column in Sunday's Boston Globe is on a popular topic here at Language Log Plaza: the multitudinous metaphors spun to explain the Higgs boson discovery to a non-scientific audience. Metaphors noted by Mark Liberman in his two posts on the subject (from divine wraiths to smoking ducks) make cameos in the column as well, and I dig a bit deeper into the history of describing the Higgs field as "cosmic molasses."

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Please don't offend this post

On a recent commute via Calgary's light rail train, the following recorded announcement caught my ear: "Please stand clear of the doors as this train is trying to depart." Beyond my initial bemusement, I thought little of it. I imagined, perhaps, a harried public transit employee playing a bit fast and loose with selectional restrictions in much the same way that a certain child I know puts together jigsaw puzzles: by pounding together pieces that approximately fit together and hoping for the best. But later in the week my husband fielded a call that made me wonder whether the train announcer's overextension of animacy features wasn't in fact a crafty linguistic maneuver to increase rush-hour compliance.

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Beginning a new feature: Fine writing from all over

It's a curious paradox of the arithmetic of modern life. New creations — from films and books to paintings and plates — flourish via the absurdly simple creative equation: A + B = C. But if a creator is himself a chimera, a sum of a few parts, the same math doesn’t compute. Take James Franco, whose multifarious career paths seem to puzzle the most supposedly wide-open minds.

David Coleman, "A Turquoise Link to Willie Nelson," New York Times 12/19/10

I'm at a loss for a snapper here.

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Zoological analogies

Back in 2003, Mark Liberman recounted a line attributed to Roman Jakobson when asked if Harvard should give Vladimir Nabokov a faculty position:

I do respect very much the elephant, but would you give him the chair of Zoology?

And in 2006, I mentioned a snippy remark that The New Republic's Martin Peretz made about Garrison Keillor, who had panned Bernard-Henri Lévy's American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville in The New York Times Book Review:

So maybe Keillor was actually an inspired choice. Why shouldn't a bird review an ornithologist?

Now the political historian Garry Wills provides another zoological analogy in his new memoir, Outside Looking In: Adventures of an Observer.

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Annals of opaque sports metaphors

On NBC's "Meet the Press" this morning, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty grasped for a baseball metaphor in this exchange with David Gregory (see the end of this video clip), and came up with the proposal that the Republicans "need to be not just the party of saying, 'We hope President Obama continues to kick it in the dugout'." Here's the context:

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Metaphor of the week

William J. Broad, "Doubts Raised on Book's Tale of Atom Bomb", NYT 2/20/2010, discusses a minor scandal of historical documentation: the descriptions of a claimed "secret accident with the [Hiroshima] atom bomb", revealed in a recent non-fiction best-seller, turn out to have been based on lies and fabrications.

That part didn't especially surprise me, but this quotation brought me up short:

“This book is a Toyota,” said Robert S. Norris, the author of “Racing for the Bomb” and an atomic historian. “The publisher should recall it, issue an apology and fix the parts that endanger the historical record.”

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Imprudent not to expect a silver bullet?

From Paul Kay, this passage from an email recently sent by the Chair of the UC Berkeley Academic Senate:

As background, the state continues to anticipate a very large deficit this year.  While the Governor's budget did call for restoring approximately $300M in funds cut last year from the UC budget, it would probably not be prudent – in my view – to assume that our budgetary situation for 2010-11 will be better than 2009-10.  In addition, the Governor's proposed constitutional amendment, which called for shifting money to higher education by privatizing the state prison system, has attracted no political support (and a great deal of criticism as a policy proposal).  While UCOP has been apparently working with to develop alternative constitutional amendments, it would again be imprudent not to expect a silver bullet.

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Framing a poll

Back in 2005, when George Lakoff's ideas about "framing" in political discourse were a hot media topic, the common journalistic mistake was to see the issue in terms of words rather than concepts.  Now the whole issue seems to have fallen out of fashion — at least, an interesting study, published about a month ago in Psychological Science and featured in the Random Samples section of Science Magazine, hasn't (as far as i can tell) generated a single MSM news story or even blog post.

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Language-is-landscape considered harmful

Jonathan Raban, "Summer with Empson", London Review of Books, 11/5/2009:

For an English-born reader, America is written in a language deceptively similar to one’s own and full of pitfalls and ‘false friends’. The word nature, for instance, means something different here – so do community, class, friend, tradition, home (think of the implications beneath the surface of the peculiarly American phrase ‘He makes his home in …’). These I’ve learned to recognise, but the longer I stay here the more conscious I am of nuances to which I must still remain deaf. The altered meanings and associations of American English, as it has parted company from its parent language over 400 years, reflect as great a difference in experience of the world as that between, say, the Germans and the French, but in this case the words are identical in form and so the difference is largely lost to sight.

Andrew Gelman, justifiably puzzled ("Two countries separated etc etc", 11/11/2009):

I can't tell if Raban is being serious or if he is making some sort of joke. The paradox of the statement above is that very few readers will be qualified to assess it.

In any case, if someone can explain to me how nature, community, class, friend, tradition, and home have different meanings in English and American, I'd appreciate it. I've read a lot of things written by English people but I have no idea whatsoever what he's taking about.

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The living history of Palin's "dead fish"

In two recent posts, Mark Liberman has investigated the religious echoes in expressions from Sarah Palin: "I know that I know that I know" and "If I die, I die." In my latest Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus, I take up yet another religiously evocative Palinism: "Only dead fish go with the flow." Turns out that variations of this adage have been circulating in Christian circles for nearly two centuries.

Subtle dog whistle or a typical comment from someone who brags about being covered in fish slime? You be the judge!

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Beneath the footsteps of commas

Sally Thomason's puzzling comma-spotting reminds me of Louis Aragon's ambiguous invitation to his readers:

Je demande à ce que mes livres soient critiqués avec la dernière rigueur, par des gens qui s'y connaissent, et qui sachant la grammaire et la logique, chercheront sous le pas de mes virgules les poux de ma pensée dans la tête de mon style.

Or as translated in the Columbia dictionary of quotations:

I demand that my books be judged with utmost severity, by knowledgeable people who know the rules of grammar and logic, and who will seek beneath the footsteps of my commas the lice of my thought in the head of my style.

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