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Thread: When does a metaphor cease being a metaphor?

  1. #1 When does a metaphor cease being a metaphor? 
    Forum Junior JoshuaL's Avatar
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    I'm guessing this belongs here, in the absence of a Linguistics or Semiotics forum. I've been trying to find some papers on the subject of how we use metaphor to communicate. There are plenty of pieces out there on metaphor in general, but what I'm specifically interested in is the question of when a metaphor ceases to be a metaphor and becomes a new word or concept to represent what it was originally metaphorical of (i.e. a synonym). This would be analogous to the euphemism treadmill. I'll try to give an example.

    We might hear the following sentence at a wine tasting: "The second wine has a very high alcohol content, which gives it a lot of legs compared to the first wine."

    In this statement, "legs" is the wine culture jargon for droplets of wine at the top of the glass rolling back to the bottom of the glass. The term "legs" is metaphorical, calling to mind those pedal widgets we walk around on. But through usage, that term will cease to call to mind an animal leg, and will instead call to mind the actual droplets of wine. The wine connoisseur will imagine wine droplets FIRST when they hear the word legs, and only second will imagine a cheetah running through the Serengeti (talk about legs!).

    I'll post a less jargonistic example later; this is just what sprang to mind. But I hope you see what I'm getting at. When does a metaphor become so identified with the thing it was originally metaphorical about that it ceases to be a metaphor and becomes merely a synonym?


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    This is one of those occasions where I like to say that it's a process, not an event. By asking "when..." it's like asking at what point in time does this come to to be the case. But rather than a point in time I suspect that it's more like an interval of time during which the metaphor becomes accepted as convention.


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    A sensible answer, thanks Ledger. If you, or anyone, can point me to any articles, books, or posts on the topic I would be most grateful.
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    It's mostly a matter of lexicography. When a restricted jargon word starts to be used more by the population at large, its first acceptance as a synonym will be granted by one or another dictionary mentioning the jargon meaning as a colloquial or slang use, giving the professional background as a source.

    Some years later, depending on the revision cycle for each dictionary, it might graduate as a full-fledged alternative meaning for the word or be confined back to its professional boundaries.

    This is a good rundown of the general process. How to get a word into the dictionary. - Slate Magazine

    Merriam-Webster tell how they do it. Merriam-Webster Online
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    Forum Junior JoshuaL's Avatar
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    Thanks for the links, adelady!

    Both articles state that usage is the determining factor for a word getting into the dictionary. Makes sense.
    I may be wrong here, but I feel like the issue with metaphor is a little trickier. Let's keep going with the legs example, but instead of wine jargon, let's switch to a more common but still metaphorical usage of the word--the legs of a piece of furniture. I'm fairly sure, but not certain, that this meaning of the word is in usage in most English speaking countries. Please comment if you know otherwise!

    So, here is a word that has been in the dictionary for ages, but (I argue) retains its metaphorical-ness. Anecdotal support for this idea: the legs of my kitchen table terminate in lion's paws, not unlike this one here. Though mine only cost 20 bucks. Antique collectors and furniture buffs will note that both Chippendale and Queen Anne styles also terminate in paws. Anyway, in this case the literal notion of legs is instilled into the furniture precisely because the maker thinks of the word as metaphorical, and they play off the words, creating a physical pun of it.

    Is this use of the word "legs" no longer a metaphor simply because it is so widely used? Or is there another criteria to consider? Of course, as Ledger points out, and I think adelady you are also saying this, the transition is not an event in itself, but something that occurs over time. Language shifts and changes to suit the moods of the currently-alive. Hm... maybe I should be looking for examples of words that are no longer metaphors, but once were. If anyone thinks of some, do post them here!
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    If you look at the 6 meanings given at leg - definition of leg by the Free Online Dictionary, Thesaurus and Encyclopedia. , you'll see No 2 as "A supporting part resembling a leg in shape or function."

    More importantly, for the meaning of legs - the wine and spirit version is there.
    "Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen." Winston Churchill
    "nature is like a game of Jenga; you never know which brick you pull out will cause the whole stack to collapse" Lucy Cooke
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    Ultimately, aren't all words metaphor - as Saussure said, they are just the arbitrary assignment of meaning to symbols.
    ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat
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    Undoubtedly, Strange, undoubtedly. But we would not say that all words are metaphors, rather that all words are symbols (or in semiotic terminology, all words are signs) and we build a complex system from these symbols (a language), and inside that system can be described all manner of rules, regulations, exceptions to those rules and regulations, quirks, confusions, etc. etc. Then a metaphor is one particular quirk of the system.

    Of course, my statement is based on a strict definition of "metaphor" not a casual use of the word. As your Saussure quote indicates, any given word represents a specific concept/object/what-have-you. But this is distinct from metaphor, which we define as "
    the expression of an understanding of one concept in terms of another concept, where there is some similarity or correlation between the two." I might liken it to a set of equations:
    WORD: x = 12
    as opposed to
    METAPHOR: x = 5y
    A word, then, is fairly straightforward. I say "pig" and point at a pig. The word will be immediately understood by the average person to mean a literal pig. But a metaphor has an added layer of abstraction and symbology. I say "pig" and point at the presidential candidate. Because it is not literal, the metaphor requires an additional linguistic leap, an extra bit of cognition on the part of the speaker/listener to make sense of the word, and the implications thereof.

    This definition, by the way, can be found in the Glossary of Linguistic Terms by Loos, Anderson, Day, Jordan, and Wingate. You can view the glossary online here.
    "The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big questions is... doubt. Doubt is humble, and that's what man needs to be, considering that human history is just a litany of getting sh*t dead wrong."

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    Hi,

    In french, we have a word for it : catachrčse (actually, it is not french but greek !) : A catachrčse is a metaphor that is accepted in the current language. It is a lexicalized metaphor.
    An interesting point is that these catachčses may be identical in other languages or may be different.
    For instance "the legs of the table" can be translated identically in spanish "las patas de la mesa", or slightly diffently in french "les pieds de la table" (litteraly the feet of the table).
    But in french we have "une feuille de papier" (a sheet of paper), "feuille" meaning the leave (of a tree). This metaphor of the leave is not used by english but is identical in spanish (hoja de papel).
    I love the fact that different languages may have found the same solution to solve a problem.
    Patrick.
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  11. #10  
    Forum Junior JoshuaL's Avatar
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    Clearly I must learn French! <eyeballs duolingo>
    "The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big questions is... doubt. Doubt is humble, and that's what man needs to be, considering that human history is just a litany of getting sh*t dead wrong."

    Take two of these and call me in the morning
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