Metaphor can make your eyes water

Posted by on April 27, 2011

The final week of metaphorical English month brings you a guest post by Martin Shovel, a writer, animator and communications expert with a special interest in new media and social networking. He writes regularly about language and communication on his own CreativityWorks blog and is a contributor to the Guardian’s Mind Your Language blog. He tweets @MartinShovel.

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The revolution in our understanding of metaphor which started in the late 1970s was Copernican in scale. It overturned the idea that metaphorical language was aberrant and out of the ordinary and placed it firmly at the centre of our conceptual universe. But even today – some forty years later – the idea can be baffling when you encounter it for the first time.

The revelation that metaphor is all-pervasive – that it structures our experience and understanding of ourselves and the world – is not difficult to grasp as an idea, but it can be very hard to absorb as a physical and emotional reality. Yet it is this distinction between intellect and experience that lies at the heart of George Lakoff’s influential definition of metaphor:

The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.
(Lakoff & Johnson: Metaphors We Live By)

For me, the most important word in Lakoff’s definition is experiencing. In much the same way that brain scientists learn about normal brain function by studying patients with diseased and injured brains, there is a group of people who can teach us a great deal about the experiential dimension of conceptual metaphor that Lakoff points up in his definition: they are people with Asperger’s syndrome – a condition at the milder end of the autism spectrum. People with Asperger’s possess an extreme sensitivity to the visual and affective power of metaphorical language, a sensitivity that compels them to take things literally, because they do not know how else to take them.

I recently heard a fascinating radio interview with two such people, Frederick and Ben, both university graduates. They talked eloquently about the emotional strain of having the literal pictorial elements of metaphor assault their senses on a daily basis.

For example, Frederick described the care he took to choose his words when asking his son – who also has Asperger’s – to ‘keep his eyes open’ for a parking space. But his efforts were regularly thwarted by his daughter who delighted in upsetting her brother by saying “no Dad, you mean ‘keep your eyes peeled!’” Her words conjured up graphic images in the boy’s mind of human eyes being peeled like pieces of fruit, and this shocking mental movie caused him to cry out, “Oh no, don’t do that to me!”

Ben responded to this anecdote by saying that he found it very frustrating when other people used ‘ambiguous’ or ‘misleading’ (metaphorical) language because it evoked these kinds of graphic and disturbing images and slowed down communication.

It would be all too easy to dismiss such sensitivity to language as little more than a pathological oddity, but this would be a mistake because the intensity of the Asperger sufferer’s linguistic experience is a distorted, but approximate, representation of our own. It demonstrates the power words have to move, appal and delight us. And it reveals a truth that poets, storytellers and orators have intuited since the dawn of language: metaphor acts upon the body, as well as the mind.

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Comments (3)
  • Young children, of course, are apt to take metaphors literally too. When mine was two, she vigorously opposed anyone ‘keeping an eye on’ her. “I don’t want an eye on me!!”

    Posted by lynneguist on 27th April, 2011
  • I got to know this Twitter account through Stan Carey’s blog Sentence first: http://twitter.com/#!/preschoolgems. It has some truly wonderful examples of metaphor in action. Stan’s example in this post http://stancarey.wordpress.com/2011/02/14/containers-of-jokes-and-metaphors/ is evidence of how adults and kids share the same experience, pretty much right from the start.

    Posted by Kati on 28th April, 2011
  • Really interesting post! Thank you.
    I would love to make my efl students listen to the interview as a start-up to our approach to literary resources in order to develop writing skills and literary analysis. But it’s not available any more. I’ll write to BBC and ask them about it.
    Any other idea on how to access those audio files? Cheers.

    Posted by akedia on 21st May, 2011
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