Hello! I have a different type of blog post today. It may appear to some of my loyal readers that all types of non-literal language can be classified as metaphors. This is not true. There are many different types of figurative language in addition to metaphors including similes, slang, idioms, clichés, proverbs, and analogies. One of the greatest challenges of doing metaphor research is sorting out these different types of language use. This past week after the midterm elections, there were many examples of slang and analogies that were confusingly similar to metaphors. I am certainly no expert on figurative language, but allow me to provide a few examples of when terms and phrases are not metaphors.
Slang: Red States and Blue States
We cannot turn on the television or radio during an election without hearing about red states and blue states. Here is a brief history of these terms: The United States has two dominant political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. During presidential elections, each state will be won by either party. In the 1990s, television stations and newspapers struggled to show which party had won each state. Eventually the media began using two contrasting colors for the two parties, red for Republican-won states, and blue for Democrat-won states. In time, people began to shorten the names to simply red states and blue states. States that can be either predominantly Democratic or Republican may be referred to as purple states.
It is very confusing as to whether or not these terms are actually metaphors. In fact, I may have described them incorrectly in a previous post. After a great deal of research and consultation with a few other experts, I have concluded that they are not metaphors. There is nothing intrinsically red or blue about any political party. In this case, the color-based origin of these slang terms is completely arbitrary.
The confusion arises when one considers that some color terms are metaphors while others are not. A metaphor is constructed when a person compares the attributes of an object or process to a person or another object or process. For example, describing a cold-hearted person as a block of ice makes sense to us because we understand that ice is cold. Or if we say that a person is a sharp thinker, we understand that the person’s mind is being compared to the sharpness of a knife. However, in some cases, there is no real-world experience with which to form the comparison. For example, we can call a cowardly person yellow even though there is there is nothing yellow about that person’s skin. Similarly, one can be green with envy, although the person is most likely not green. In these cases, the terms are not metaphors.
However, we can say that a person is green if he or she is new to a job. This usage is derived from the fact that, as any gardener knows, a new plant will have bright green shoots and leaves when it first emerges from the ground. The immaturity of the plant is compared to the immaturity and lack of experience of the person. We can also refer to something as being silver or golden based on our experiences with the colors and value of these precious metals. As another example, people have no doubt experienced red tape when dealing with a bureaucracy. In this case, the phrase is derived from the old practice of tying up government documents with red tape. Or we can have blue-collar workers because many factory workers wear light blue shirts as their uniforms. As you can see, the phrases red, blue or purple states have no basis in physical reality, so I would call these slang terms instead of metaphors.
Analogies: Bulls, Fire, Fuses, and Wells
A completely different type of confusion arises when people use longer phrases to describe a situation. In the aftermath of the midterm elections, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell claimed that if President Obama made any executive actions on immigration reform it would be like “waving a red flag in front of a bull.” He also said it “would poison the well” and prevent further dialog on the issue.
Speaker of the House John Boehner warned President Obama not to go through with an executive order regarding immigration. He stated, “He’s playing with fire.” “He’s going to burn himself if he continues down this path.”
Later, Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor talked about the same issue on Meet the Press (11/9/14) “We’re going to work together and the president cannot sign that executive order. He’s going to light a fuse.”
What are these types of phrases? I noticed that some articles on the Internet described these as idioms, but I believe that they are more correctly described as analogies. Idioms are notoriously difficult to define and describe. However, one common criterion among linguists is that idioms are noncompositional, meaning that the words used to make up the idiom do not provide its meaning.
For example, describing a heavy rain as raining cats and dogs is very confusing. There is nothing about cats or dogs that indicate why a heavy rain would have them falling from the sky. There are some theories about the origins of this phrase including the idea that some animals lived in the roofing thatch of houses during the Middle Ages, and jumped down to the ground when it started raining. Another idea is that dead animals were washed down city sewer drains after a heavy rain. But these explanations are what are known as being apocryphal or as folk etymologies, a layperson’s explanation for the origin of a phrase without any basis in fact. We also have the phrase kick the bucket describing a death. Once again, there seems to be no historical precedent for a person kicking an actual bucket while dying. In any case, there seems to be no real-world experience to call these examples anything but idioms.
Sometimes unusual phrases that appear to idioms actually turn out to be metaphors because of real-life experiences. One such example is the phrase to bury the hatchet used to describe a peace making process. This phrase actually dates back to the 1700s when some Native America tribes actually threw a hatchet into the ground symbolically indicating that the war between two tribes was over. The phrase winning hands down also may seem too unusual to be historical in origin. However, as I explained in a previous post on horse racing, the phrase is derived from the practice of jockeys lowering their arms when they are winning a horse race by a large margin since they no longer have to spur the horse to a faster pace.
Back to the colorful phrases of the Republicans. I believe these to be analogies. We may remember analogies from our high school SAT tests as in dog:puppy :: cat:kitten. These, like metaphors, are also a type of comparison. People may use analogies to explain a complex process or situation. In politics, we may hear politicians explaining the federal budget, for example, in terms of a household budget, e.g., “The government has to pay its bills every month just like you do at your kitchen table.”
Using analogies is a rhetorical strategy to compare a familiar process to a new, complex one. Thus, for example, comparing President Obama’s executive action on immigration as waving a red flag in front of a bull indicates that it is a dangerous situation for Obama analogous to a bullfighting scenario. However, I heard several pundits on TV wondering out loud who was whom in the analogy, i.e., who is the bull in this analogy? Who is the matador in the bullfight? The main idea is that the Republicans will be as angry at Obama as the bull will be at the matador, but in many cases, the bull ends up being killed by the matador, so perhaps they did not think the analogy all the way through.
Similarly, Eric Cantor’s reference to lighting the fuse also implies a dangerous situation for the president, but it is not clear why President Obama is lighting the fuse for a bomb, and who would be injured by the bomb if it exploded. Mitch McConnell’s reference to playing with fire has similar implications but similar ambiguities.
The analogy comparing the executive action as poisoning the well is even more confusing. The main idea is that poisoning a well is analogous to spoiling the working relationships between two groups of people. However, this is a rather sinister analogy. A person who deliberately poisons a well would most likely end up accidentally killing innocent people. I don’t see how making an executive action would accidentally kill people.
In any case, these sayings are clearly not simply metaphors but complex analogies. It remains to be seen if President Obama does indeed go through with executive actions without the support of Congress and what the reaction of the Republicans will be. Stay tuned for further developments!
Next time: Metaphors of the Night Sky