It’s easy to get the wrong end of the stick

Posted by on April 21, 2011

Our next guest post in metaphorical English months comes from Frank Boers, an expert in the field of metaphor, phraseology and second language acquisition. He is Associate Professor at the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.

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I remember that as a teenager learning English as a foreign language I was convinced the expression jump the gun referred to an act of bravery, and this despite contextual clues suggesting this was probably not an accurate interpretation of the expression. I took ‘the gun’ to refer to a firearm, and the expression evoked an image of someone bravely trying to disarm a criminal. I only realised years later that ‘the gun’ in the expression jump the gun is not of the killing type but of the type that signals the start of a race. I also used to think the phrase follow suit meant something along the lines of ‘being obedient to authority’. I’d pictured men in suits as symbols of authority. Again, it took years before I realized that my initial interpretation was wide of the mark: ‘suit’ in this phrase refers not to clothing but to playing cards, and the idiom means ‘doing the same thing as the person before you’, generalized from certain card games where you have to play a card from the same suit as the previous player.

A substantial proportion of conventionalized metaphorical language is made up of expressions such as jump the gun and follow suit, known as figurative idioms. Although the context in which they are encountered will usually signal quite clearly that these are to be taken metaphorically, they nevertheless tend to activate in language learners’ minds an image associated with a literal reading of the words as well. In some cases, it is indeed the literal reading that directs the learner to an interpretation of the expression’s figurative usage. For example, if throw in the towel calls up the image of a towel being thrown into the boxing ring, then this is likely to help recognition of its figurative meaning, ‘giving up’.

Using such mental pictures in learning idiomatic expressions can be a good thing, of course, because it makes the meaning of the expressions very memorable. The problem is that the words that make up idioms are often semantically vague (as in jump the gun) or downright ambiguous (as in follow suit). This means that different literal readings – and thus different associated mental images – are possible, some of which will lead the learner astray from an appropriate interpretation of the figurative expression. A student of mine once told me that the phrase show someone the ropes (‘teach someone a certain task’) had a threatening ring to him. When I queried him about the image this idiom called up in his mind, it turned out he thought ‘the ropes’ referred to the ropes of a boxing ring (instead of a sailing vessel).

Contextual clues may of course put the learner on the right interpretational path, although much vocabulary research cautions that we should not have too much faith in the effectiveness of guessing-from-context strategies. Learners sometimes ignore contextual clues that could help them rectify earlier interpretations of a word, for example. Because of their highly imagistic and therefore highly memorable nature, inaccurate early interpretations of figurative idioms may be particularly resistant to contextual counterevidence. As a result, it can take learners several encounters with the same figurative expression before it dawns on them that their initial interpretation does not fit. Verifying that initial interpretation straightaway, for example by consulting a good dictionary, would seem like a sensible thing to do…

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