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   Chapter 11 PICTURES IN WORDS.

Stories That Words Tell Us By Elizabeth O'Neill Characters: 18689

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Everybody who has thought at all about our ways of speech must have noticed that we are all constantly saying things in a way which is not literally true. We say a child is a "sunbeam in the house;" but, of course, we only mean that she is gay and happy, and cheers every one up by her merriment. Or we describe some one as a "pearl among women," meaning that by her splendid qualities she is superior to most women as a pearl is to common stones.

Or, again, we may read in the newspaper that a statesman "spoke with sudden fire;" by which, of course, we understand that in the course of a calm speech he suddenly broke out passionately into words which showed how keenly he felt on the subject of which he was speaking.

Our language is full of this kind of speaking and writing, which is called "metaphorical." The word metaphor comes from two Greek words meaning "to carry over." In "metaphorical" speech a name or description of one thing is transferred to another thing to which it could not apply in ordinary commonplace language.

By means of metaphors we express more vividly and strikingly our feelings on any subject. We draw our metaphors from many different sources. Many of them naturally come from Nature, for the facts of Nature are all around us. We speak of a "sea of trouble" when we feel that the spirit is overwhelmed by sadness so great that it suggests the vastness of the sea swallowing up all that it meets. Or we speak of a "storm of anger," because what takes place in a person's soul in such a state is similar in some way to the confusion and force of a storm in Nature. Again, an expression like a "torrent of words" is made possible by our familiarity with the quick pouring forth of water in a torrent. By this expression, of course, we wish to suggest a similar quick rushing of words. Other expressions of this kind are "a wave of anguish," the "sun of good fortune," and there are hundreds of which every one can think.

Another source from which many metaphors have come is war, which has given men some of the most vivid action possible to humankind. Thus we speak of "a war of words," of a person "plunging into the fray," when we mean that he or she joins in a keen argument or quarrel. Or we speak more generally of the "battle of life," picturing the troubles and difficulties of life as the obstacles against which soldiers have to fight in battle. Shakespeare has the expression, "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune."

We have a great many metaphorical expressions taken from painting, sculpture, and other arts. Thus we speak of "moulding" one's own life, picturing ourselves as sculptors, with our lives as the clay to be shaped as we will. Shakespeare has a similar metaphor,-

"There's a divinity which shapes our ends,

Rough-hew them how we will."

We may, he says, roughly arrange our way of life, but the final result belongs to a greater artist-God.

Again, we speak of "building our hopes" on a thing, of "moulding" a person's character, of the "canvas of history," imagining history as a picture of things past. We speak of a person describing something very enthusiastically as "painting it in glowing colours," and so on. We also describe the making of new words as "coining them."

But not only are the sentences we make full of metaphors, but most of our words-all, in fact, except the names of the simplest things-are really metaphors themselves. The first makers of such words were speaking "in metaphor," as we should say now; but when the words passed into general use this fact was not noticed.

A great many of the metaphors found in words are the same in many languages. Many of them are taken from agriculture, which is, of course, after hunting, the earliest occupation of all peoples. We can easily think of many words now used in a general sense which originally applied to some simple country practice. We speak of being "goaded" to do a thing when some one persuades or threatens or irritates us into doing it. But a goad was originally a spiked stick used to drive cattle forward. The word goad, then, as we use it now, is a real metaphor.

Again, we speak of our feelings being "harrowed." The word harrow first meant, and still means, the drawing of a frame with iron teeth (itself called a harrow) over ploughed land to break up the clods. From this meaning it has come to have the figurative meaning of wounding or ruffling the feelings.

Another word connected with agriculture which has passed into a general sense is glean. We may now speak of "gleaning" certain facts or news, but to glean was originally (and still means in its literal sense) to gather the ears of corn remaining after the reapers have got in the harvest.

We speak of a nation groaning under the "yoke" of a foreign tyrant, or again of the "yoke" of matrimony, and in the Bible we have the text, "My yoke is easy." In these and in many other cases the word yoke is used figuratively to denote something weighing on the spirit; but the original use of yoke, and again one which remains, was to name the wooden cross-piece fastened over the necks of two oxen, and attached to a plough or wagon which they have to draw.

The word earn reminds us of a time when the chief way of earning money or payment of any kind was field-labour; for this word, which means so many things now, comes from an old Teutonic word meaning field-labour. The same word became in German ernte, which means "harvest."

Another common word with somewhat the same meaning as earn is gain; and this, again, takes us back to a time when our early ancestors won their profits by the grazing of their flocks. The word gain came into English from an Old French word, but this word in its turn came from a Teutonic word meaning to graze or pasture. The first people who used the word earn for other ways of getting payment than field-labour, and the word gain in a general sense, were really making metaphors.

Some of our commonest words take us back to a time before our ancestors even settled down to cultivate the land, or perhaps even before the days when they had learned to tame and give pasturage to their flocks. Some of our simplest words contain the idea of travelling or wandering. The word fear, which would not seem to have anything to do with journeying, comes from the same root-word as fare, the Old English word for "travel." Probably it came to be used because people travelling through the wild forests and swamps of Europe in those far-off days found much to terrify them, and so the word fear was made, containing this idea of moving from place to place. But again this was a metaphor. Until after the Norman Conquest the word fear meant a sudden or terrible happening. Only later it came to mean the feeling which such an event or the expectation of it would cause.

We may become tired in mind or body from many causes; but when we say we are "weary" we are literally saying that we have travelled far over difficult ground, for the word weary comes from an Old English word meaning this.

Some of our words are really metaphors showing the effect which different aspects of Nature had on the men who made them. When we say we are astonished we do not mean that we are "struck by thunder," but that is what the word literally means. It comes from the Latin word attonare, which means this. The words astound and stun contain the same hidden metaphor, which we use in a plainer way when we say we are "thunder-struck," meaning that we are very much surprised.

In the Middle Ages people believed that the stars had a great effect on the lives of men. If the stars were in a certain position at the time of a person's birth, he would be lucky all his life; if in another, he was doomed to unhappiness. From this belief we still use the expression "born under a lucky star" to describe a person who seems always to be fortunate. But the same metaphor is contained in single words. We speak of an unfortunate enterprise as "ill-starred," and the metaphor is clear. But when the newspapers speak of a railway "disaster," very few people realize that they are speaking the language of the medi?val astrologers, men who studied the fortunes of nations and individuals from the stars. Disaster literally means such a misfortune as would be caused by adverse stars, and comes from the Greek word for star, astron, and the Latin dis.

The words jovial and mercurial, used to describe people of merry and lively temper, are metaphors of the same kind. A person born under the planet Jupiter (the star called after the Roman god Jupiter or Jove) was supposed to be of a merry disposition, and a person born when the planet Mercury was visible in the heavens was expected to be lively and ready-witted. When we use these words now to describe people, we do not, of course, mean that they were born under any particular star, but the words are metaphors which literally do mean this.

The word auspicious comes from a similar source. We speak of an "inauspicious" undertaking, meaning one which seems destined to be unlucky. But really what the word inauspicious says is that the "auspices are against" the undertaking. And this takes us back to Roman times, when no important thing was done in the state without the magistrates "taking the auspices." This they did

from observing the flight of certain birds. In war the commander-in-chief of the Roman armies alone had the right to "take the auspices." We should think such a proceeding very foolish now, but in the words auspicious and inauspicious we are literally saying that the auspices have been favourable or unfavourable.

One of the common practices of the scholars who studied astrology and other sciences in the Middle Ages was the search for the philosopher's stone, which they believed had the power of giving eternal youth. They would melt metals in pots for this purpose. These pots were called by the Old Latin name of test. From this word we now have the modern word test, used in the sense of trial-another metaphor from the Middle Ages.

Many common English words are really metaphors made from old English sports, such as hunting and hawking. It is curious to think how these words are chiefly used to-day by people who know nothing of these pastimes, while the people who made the words were so familiar with them that they naturally expressed themselves in this way. We speak of a person being in another's "toils," when we mean in his "power." The word toils comes from the French toiles, meaning "cloths," and also used for the nets put round part of a wood, in which birds are being preserved for shooting, to prevent their escaping. The expression to "turn" or be "at bay," by which we mean that there is no chance of escape, but that the person in such a situation must either give in or fight, comes from hunting. The hare or the fox is said to be "at bay" when it comes to a wall or other object which prevents its running farther, and so turns and faces its pursuers. Bay is the deep barking of the hounds.

The word crestfallen, by which we mean looking ashamed and depressed, comes from the old sport of cock-fighting. The bird whose crest (or tuft of hair on the head) drooped after the fight was naturally the one which had been beaten. The word pounce comes from hawking, pounces being the old word for a hawk's claws. The word haggard, which now generally means worn and sometimes a little wild-looking through grief or anxiety, was originally the name given to a hawk caught, not, like most hawks used for hawking, when it was quite young, but when it was already grown up. Such a hawk would naturally have a wild look, and would never become so tame as the birds caught young.

Several words meaning to entice a person come from fowling. We speak of persons being "decoyed" when we mean that they are deceived into going to some dangerous place. The person who entices them away is called a "decoy;" but the first use of the word was to describe a duck trained to induce other ducks to fly or walk into nets laid over ponds by trappers. Another word of this kind is allure, which means to persuade a person to do something by making it seem very attractive. This word really means to bring a person (originally an animal) to the "lure" or "bait" prepared to catch him.

The word trap, which may now mean to show a person to be guilty by a trick, or to put him in the wrong in some way, is a metaphorical use. The word literally means to catch an animal in a trap.

Many words contain metaphors drawn from the older and simpler trades. We speak of a thing being "brand-new"-that is, as new as though just stamped with a "brand" or iron stamp. Another expression which has changed its meaning a little with time used to have exactly the same meaning. We now say a person looks "spick and span" when he or she is very neatly dressed. Formerly the expression was "spick and span new"-that is, as new as a spike (or spoon) just made or a chip newly cut. We may safely say that very few people who now use the expression "spick and span" have any idea of what it means literally. The metaphor is well hidden, but it is there.

Another metaphor, connected with metals and coins, is contained in the word sterling. We speak of "sterling qualities" or a "sterling character" in praising people for being straightforward and truthful, and not boastful. But the expression originally applied only to metals and coins. Sterling gold or silver is gold or silver of a certain standard of purity and not mixed with too much of any base metal.

Even the art of the baker has given us a word with a hidden metaphor. We speak of sending out another "batch" of men to the front; but batch originally meant, and still means, the loaves of bread produced at one baking. It is now used generally to describe a number of things coming together or in a set.

The butcher's shop has given us the word shambles, by which we now mean a place of slaughter. Thus we speak of a terrible battlefield as a "shambles." This metaphor is really due to a mistake. People came to think that a shambles was a singular noun meaning slaughter-house, or place where cattle were killed; but really the shambles were the benches on which the meat was spread for sale.

We speak of a person being the "tool" of another, and this is a metaphor taken from the general idea of work. The "tool" is merely used by the other person for some purpose of his own, just as a workman uses his tools. The greatest poem, or book, or picture of a poet, writer, or painter is often described as a "masterpiece." This word now means a "splendid piece of work," but in the Middle Ages a "masterpiece" was a piece of work by which a person working at a trade showed himself sufficiently good to be allowed to be a "master." Before that he was a "journeyman," and worked for a master himself, and, earlier still, an apprentice merely learning his trade. We often now use the expression to try one's "'prentice hand" on a thing when we mean that we are going to do a thing for the first time.

The commonest actions have naturally given us most metaphorical words, for these were the actions of which the word-makers were most easily reminded. We speak of our passions or emotions being "kindled," taking the metaphor from the common action of lighting a fire.

The two words lord and lady contain very homely metaphors. The lord was the "loaf-keeper," in Old English hlaford, the person on whom the household depended for their food. The lady might even make the bread, and often did so; and the word lady comes from hl?fdige-dig being the Old English word for knead.

The common word maul may mean to beat and bruise a person, but it means more often merely to handle something carelessly and roughly. Literally it means "to hit with a hammer," and comes from maul or mall, the name of a certain very heavy kind of hammer; so that when a child is told not to "maul" a book, it is literally being told not to hit it with a heavy hammer.

We have made many metaphorical words from joining together two Latin words and making a new meaning. We speak of a person having an "obsession" about something when he is always thinking of one thing. But the word obsession comes from the Latin word obsidere, "to besiege;" and so in the word obsession the constant thought is pictured as continually trying to gain entrance into the mind. We use the word besiege in the same metaphorical sense. We speak of being "besieged" with questions, and so on.

Another word used now most often metaphorically comes also from this idea of siege warfare. In all fortified places there are holes at intervals along the walls of defence, through which the defenders may shoot at the attackers. These are called "loop-holes." This word is now used much oftener in a figurative sense than to describe the actual thing. When two persons are arguing and one has plainly shown the other to be wrong, we say he has "not a loophole" of escape from the other's reasoning. Or if a person objects very much to doing something, and makes many excuses, every one of which is shown to be worthless, we again say he has "no loophole for escape."

Every child has heard of the Crusades, in which the nobles and knights and soldiers of the Middle Ages went to fight against the Turks to win back the Holy Sepulchre. These wars were called "crusades," from the cross which the Crusaders wore as badges. The word was made from the Latin word crux, which means "cross." But crusade has now become a general word. We speak of a "temperance crusade," of a "peace crusade," and so on. The word has come to have the general meaning of efforts made by people for something which they believe to be good; but literally every person who works for such a "crusade" is a knight buckling on his armour, signed with the cross, and sallying forth to the East.

This word sally also comes from siege warfare. A "sally" means a rush of defenders from a besieged place, attempting to get past the besiegers by taking them by surprise. It also has the more general meaning of an excursion, such as the going forth to a crusade. It means literally a "leaping out," and comes from the Latin word salire, "to leap." The word sally is also used to mean a sudden lively remark generally rather against some person or thing. It is interesting to notice that the fish salmon also probably takes its name from this Latin word meaning "to leap."

Any child with a dictionary can find for himself many hidden metaphors in the commonest words; and he will learn a great deal and amuse himself at the same time.

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