Saturday, March 21, 2009

Dead metaphors

I often find myself explaining metaphors to my students that I don't even consciously recognize as metaphors until there's a failure of understanding. When I teach Brit Lit I, for example, I typically have one or two students for whom "lord" always and everywhere means "God"; they'll raise their hands and start talking earnestly about what a religious man a given servant or flunkey or knight must be--because the author keeps talking about his relationship with his lord. A related problem is "mistress," which not every student recognizes as the female equivalent of "master." In both cases, I have to explain that our usage of Lord to mean God or mistress to mean "extra-curricular lover" are actually metaphors derived from courtly culture.

Those particular misunderstandings don't surprise me any more, but there are always new ones. When I taught my Milton seminar a couple of semesters ago, I had a student ask me what I meant when I referred to the rabbinic tradition that the captive Samson was put out to stud.
"Oh!" I said. "You know: like a racehorse. There's a tradition that he was used to impregnate the Philistine women, so they'd produce warlike sons."

"Okay," she said. "But put out to stud. . .?"

"When we call a guy a stud, today, we mean he's sexually virile, right?"

My class nodded, uncertainly.

"Well," I said. "When we say that, we're comparing him to a stallion, or uncastrated horse--there's usually only one on a farm, right? The others are mares or geldings."

I paused. No one seemed to have any idea what I was talking about. "I mean, didn't any of you grow up in the country? Okay. Well. Take my word for it. Lesson over!"
The discourses of sex and romance probably do produce metaphors (and euphemisms and ultimately clichés) at a greater rate than others. Lately, the dead or nearly dead metaphors that I've been noticing are endearments. I've taught a couple of pre- or early modern texts this semester that have succeeded in reinvigorating "honey" for me--an endearment that I not only have never used, but have always regarded as particularly cheap and inane. But coming across endearments like "sweet honey-comb" and "sweet honey dear," I realized that, hey! honey is sweet! and good! And that's really a nice thing to call someone!

Such reinvigorations are pleasurable, but it may be just as well that most endearments are now largely divorced from their metaphorical significance. If you think about them too hard, many aren't just cutesy or tired, but actively icky. I'm profoundly glad that "mommy" and "daddy" are no longer common romantic endearments--though of course we still refer to sugar daddies and mommies in circumstances where we intend to foreground the relational inequity. Even the ubiquitous "baby," though, carries some of the same baggage.

This may be why endearments that are dated enough to seem strange have always been the most appealing to me: various of my female friends and I have gone through periods of addressing each other as "darling," "sweetheart," and "dearest one," and I briefly dated (and was completely charmed by) someone who had an easy, arch way with "buttercup," "honey lamb," and the like. Such usages are always semi-ironic, or at least conscious of their own absurdity--and that's probably what makes them appealing.

So in the absence of evocative metaphors, I suppose there are worse things than dead ones.


Moria said...

I love the religious ones!

Funny, too, to think about the metaphors that weren't -- reading Anglo-Saxon, for example. I don't really think of Jesus as having thanes. But whoever composed the "Dream of the Rood" did! And kennings - what happened to all of them? Why did we, as a culture, cease to refer to parties as beer-ships?

meg said...

I am regularly reminded of dead metaphors when hanging out with small children. A few days ago, a 4-year-old heard me refer to Special K as "baby." "Why did you call him a baby?," she asked. "He's not a BABY!!!"

"Honey" was there for me: I could say, you know how your dad calls you honey? And you're not bee vomit? That's a metaphor!

Of course, "bee vomit" was the secret weapon -- suddenly we were talking about what honey really is and how sweet the puke of other animals can be.

Okay, everybody who's thinking "Thank GOD she's not a parent!" raise your hand...

St. Eph said...

There's an article about the use of sweetness metaphors in early modern literature, but I can't for the life of me remember more details. It foregrounded the rarity of real sweetness before ready access to refined sugar. You've got your honey, your summer fruits and vegetables, and that's about it. (Remember in the Little House books how excited Laura and Mary would get over an orange and a piece of horehound candy?) Thinking in those terms really does increase the resonance of that class of dead metaphor.

Also, I am a one-woman force for reclaiming "doll" as an endearment from creepy people.

miltonista said...

I'm going to act like one of your baffled students and ask you to explain "honey lamb." Is the derivation culinary? Theological?

"Honey lion carcass" would be more Samsonian (and transgressive?), although not Miltonic.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Wait ... someone stopped calling parties beer-ships?

How else do you explain a hangover if there was no gebeorscipe to drop you overboard?

Flavia said...

Moria: yes, I love the religious ones, too, and I seem to spend a lot of time thinking about them. It's struck me that one Christian metaphor that is almost entirely dead (although people keep using it) is that of Christ as a sacrificial victim. That's a deeply pre-modern metaphor, and one that I'd think would be much more disturbing to many more people than it apparently is.

The Fall, on the other hand--and the Incarnation and even to a degree transubstantiation--remain, I think, really evocative as metaphors (whether or not they're intended or understood as metaphors in a given tradition). It's their meaningfulness as metaphors, actually, that makes the theology work for me, and is probably why I still consider myself a Catholic.

But perhaps that's a separate post.

Flavia said...

And Miltonista: I have no fucking clue. I've always assumed it to be the bastard child of the sweetness school of endearment and the cute, fuzzy animal school of endearment--but I really don't know. I am, however, totally on-board with trying to promote "honey lion carcass."

And St. Eph: I don't know that article, but I'd love to read it if more details reoccur to you.