global English linguistics and lexicography

A tsunami of metaphors

With the awful news coming out of Japan, it’s not surprising that there has been a spike in lookups of earthquake-related vocabulary in Macmillan Dictionary. Like many words for natural phenomena, earthquake and tsunami are often used metaphorically. Tsunami functions very much like wave, both literally and figuratively – it’s just much bigger and more impressive. You get tsunamis of protest, violence, complaints, arrests, indignation and outrage (just as you get waves of the same things). The adjective seismic regularly appears in expressions like these:

This might have brought about a seismic upheaval in American race relations.
After their calorie-starved day, it causes a seismic tremor of genuine excitement.

And the combination seismic shift is a lot more frequent in figurative use than in its literal meaning:

The Stone Roses’ debut created a seismic shift in the entire nature of the UK music industry.

According to some reports, Japan’s coastline has moved as much as 4 metres to the east, and the quake has actually caused the Earth to shift on its axis. Changes of this fundamental kind, in the non-physical world, are often signalled by the use of ‘earthquake metaphors’:

There have been, and continue to be, profound philosophical changes, shifting the tectonic plates of the theological ground beneath our feet.
However, the last seven days are a sign that the tectonic plates of British politics are shifting.

Even the term Richter scale, which measures the seismic energy of an earthquake, is occasionally enlisted to create a memorable metaphor:

Buffalo G are Olive Tucker & Naomi Lynch: two bonkers 16 -year-old rapper-singers from Dublin, with energy levels that go off the Richter scale.
My colleague’s telephone manner almost topped the Richter scale of sycophanticism.

In ten days or so, our ‘What’s your English’ theme will move on to metaphorical English, and we’ll explore these ideas in a bit more depth.

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Michael Rundell

1 Comment

  • Another related word that’s sometimes used metaphorically is aftershock, normally after some sort of (figurative) seismic activity.

    I must say, I’m looking forward to a wave of posts on metaphorical English.

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