Daily Metaphors: Poetry in Everyday Speech
Every day, in nearly every sentence we utter, we surround ourselves with metaphors, most of which we are not even aware we use. In Nietzsche's "On Truth and Lies in the Non-Moral Sense," he points out how our perceptions of things are not themselves the same as the thing. For instance, if you stand far away from a circular table, it appears to be an oval. Yet we know it is not really an oval; our perspective merely makes it seem so. Are our perceptions, then, not metaphors in some sense? Then to these perceptions we apply sounds, like "cup" or "ball", but these sounds themselves have nothing to do with the thing or the image. Are these concrete words not metaphors? Perhaps not; we don't have to agree with Nietzsche. For the next step, however, we may just come around.
Then from these concrete words we form concepts. Just as in Japanese ideograms, a dog and an ear depicted together means 'bark,' so in our Western languages we have formed concepts out of concrete nouns and these concepts over time have mutated to have their present meanings. The word 'onomatopoeia', for instance, is made of two Greek words, one for 'sound' (onomos) and one for 'to make' (poiesis), meaning literally "made of sound."
In what follows, I shall take a few concepts that are used often enough, perhaps daily, and explicate their humble beginnings as concrete words.
'Object' and 'Subject': Both of these words are close relatives of 'eject,' as they in fact come from the same root, the Latin iacere, meaning 'to throw.' As you might guess, 'eject' means 'to throw from,' like your VCR throws the VHS tape from its mouth. 'Ob-' is a prefix that means 'against,' and indeed 'object' literally means 'the thrown-against thing.' Subject, on the other hand, is just what you have probably guessed, 'the thrown-under thing.' This meaning is clear in other contexts. For instance, "I object!" stated in a courtroom environment is a 'throwing against' of sorts, throwing courtroom rules and etiquette against a statement. Also, when we speak of someone being subjected to some treatment, it is easier to see how they can be seen as a 'throwing under.' It is, however, more of a stretch to see how objects have earned this name. To make a long story short, medieval philosophers used the term to refer to anything 'thrown against' the senses. So anything one can see, smell, taste, hear, or feel is an object.
'Substance': The '-stance' root is one we can see shared with 'circumstance' and 'distance,' and means more or less what would would imagine, standing. Coming from the Latin stare, meaning 'to stand,' 'circumstance' literally means 'that which stands around.' Circumstances are the 'standing around things.' Distance, combining 'de-' with '-stance' means 'to stand away from,' making distance the awayness between standings. So substance must mean 'that which stands under,' and indeed it does. Again, Latin philosophers, particularly in translating and discussing Aristotle, used the term to refer to anything that has physical being. For Aristotle, there are two things, properties and substances; properties inhere in substances, and substances are the things that 'stand under' these properties, the pure thing itself. Over time, 'substance' acquired its more scientific term and any stuff of which one is studying the properties, whether it be bisodium carbonate or dihydrogen monoxide.
Let's take a break from philosophy and have some lighter etymologies.
'Peninsula': It would be possible to figure out the etymology of this word on one's own, if one thought about it for a while. The 'pen-' in 'peninsula' is the familiar one to be found in 'penumbra' and 'penultimate,' which means 'one from the last.' The 'insula' is the very same to be found in 'insulate' and 'insular,' coming from the Latin for 'island.' Hence to 'insulate' is to 'islandize' something, to break off contact with the exterior on all sides. If an island, then, is characterized by being out of contact with mainland on all sides, and we now know that 'peninsula' means 'one from an island,' we can see that the metaphor refers to the contact a peninsula has with mainland on one side only.
'Excruciating': The 'cruc' in 'excruciating' is shared by 'crucial' and, yes, 'crucifixion.' 'Crucifixion' itself comes from 'ficere,' meaning to fasten or join something (to something else) and 'cruc' naturally means 'cross.' This leaves 'excruciating' to mean 'from the cross.' Whether the term is Christian in origin or merely Roman origin I can't say, but it certainly brings to mind the most famous cross-victim, Jesus. An excruciating experience is therefore an experience similar to the experience of being crucified. Naturally, this is speaking metaphorically.
Since I've mentioned crosses and islands, it bears mention that metaphor is itself a metaphor. 'meta' means in Greek, amongst other things, 'over' and 'across' and 'phor' from the Greek for 'to carry.' A metaphor is thus literally something that 'carries over' or 'carries across,' like a boat. Incidentally, as often happens, the Latin term meaning the exact same thing on the literal level has come into English as something altogether different: translate, from Latin 'trans' (over, across) and 'latum,' the supine of 'fero,' meaning 'to carry.'
Going Once, Going Twice
'Ambition': Composed of 'amb' meaning 'about' and 'ire' meaning 'to go,' 'ambire' originally referred to the going about of Latin officials to gather votes. It is not a stretch to see how this came to refer to the drive to higher offices and eventually simply the drive to succeed and have honors.
'Obituary': Composed of 'ob,' which we say above means 'against' and 'ire' again, 'obire' literally means 'to go against.' However, as is often the case, 'against' is meant in the form of 'meeting' here, hence 'to go to meet.' The Roman phrase 'mortem obire', 'to go to meet death', was a euphemism for 'to die' and later in history the 'mortem' was safely dropped and 'obire' meant 'to die.' The ending '-uary' roughly means 'place of,' hence a sanctuary is a holy place, a mortuary a place of the dead, and an obitary is therefore literally 'the place of going against.'
'Initiate': Composed of 'in,' meaning, naturally, 'in' or 'into' and 'ire,' 'inire' literally means 'to go in' meaking 'initiation' mean a 'going in,' or an entry into something.
Other 'ire' based words include 'perish,' meaning literally 'to go through' and 'transition,' meaning 'to go over' or 'to go across.'
So there you have it, we are all poets in some sense, constantly speaking in metaphors, constructing our experience of the world through metaphor. There is a poetic beauty to our speech, everyday speech, however unremarkable. However, every age is always hungry for new metaphors, metaphors that fit our age and allow us to interpret new experiences and shape for ourselves a human world appropriate to our time and circumstances. We need new metaphors to move forward, to progress mentally and spiritually. For this we must look to the true poets. In an age so riddled with cliche as ours is, where Batman comics, Spiderman movies and Big Brother have taken the place once held by the likes of Dickens and Shakespeare, where barely literate text messages have taken the place of well-written letters, one despairs that our era is poor in metaphor and overburdened with the concrete on the one hand and tired metaphors of a past age on the other. We have to work much harder in this age to find new metaphors, and some may never find them, but find them we must. Fresh metaphor is the spiritual grace of civilization.
More by this Author
It has always been my conviction that the basic insights of the great philosophers can be rendered in pleasing, non-technical prose for everyone to understand. The great ideas arise as a result of experienced reality, a...
This article covers ten of the most horrifying works of graphic art (painting, woodcuts, pastels) ever produced by some of the greatest, most idiosyncratic artists in history.
Will While the following ten novels are some of the most unusual ever written, it would be foolish for many reasons to claim they are the weirdest. Not even taking into consideration the subjectivity inherent in any...