Sunday, August 29, 2004

Figures of Speech

Through my work on autism, I became aware that many people on the autistic spectrum--myself included--will often tend to take figures of speech literally. If you are not interested in autism per se, please persist since I will only briefly "set the stage" to talk more generally about metaphorical figures of speech.

In my "Literal Detours" model (see, I propose that

1. People in the general population will tend to go immediately to the socially defined meaning of the term. A reference to someone "putting his foot in his mouth" may immediately lead to the idea of social clumsiness or making a social mistake.

2. Individuals on the autistic spectrum are less likely to go directly to the socially defined meaning. Instead, through a "literal detour," the metaphor must be imagined. To be understood, there must then be a "bounce-off" whereby it is realized that the expression is not intended to be interpreted literally.

I discuss these issues in more detail in my paper, but let's "turn the tables" and evaluate the use of figures of speech in "neurotypical" society.

What I have suggested is that most people will tend to use figures of speech without really really bothering to think much of the metaphor that was intended. Few people know, for example, that "red tape" refers to the ribbons that attorneys used to bind lengthy legal documents in the old days in France. In order to work on, or "get to the bottom of," these documents, it was necessary to "cut the red tape" to open the packet. Today, with the Internet, it is easier to find possible origins of expressions--but it is, of course, also easier to be misinformed by all the unverified information available online. Nevertheless, it is time consuming to find word origins, and I will confess that I, too, use expressions whose origins I do not know. There are also expressions whose origins are not clear. There are many possible hypotheses on the origins of the term "Once in a blue moon," and none seems to be a favorite by any means.

There are some figures of speech that seem to be used with little thought to their origins. For many years (and "until this day," for that matter), people would suggest that I have a "dry" sense of humor. I could find a definition of the term in the dictionary, but I could not figure out the metaphor. Finally, one day it dawned on me that most people probably did not have one in mind when they used the term to describe me. I could say that many figures of speech have "sinister" origins, but I do not want to express a prejudice against left-handed people . Nevertheless, many word origins are troubling. The term "grandfather rule" conjures up an image of a nice old man who should not be forced to change his way of doing things late in life. The real origin of the term, however, is far from that "cuddly." The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race. Officials in many southern states, however, were not particularly interested in complying with this directive. At the time, states were considered to be entitled to require an individual to pass a literacy test before being allowed to vote. (The Civil Rights Act of either 1964 or 1968 severely limited this prerogative). Many whites, however, would not be able to pass this test, so such a means could not be used to selectively exclude non-whites from voting. Instead, officials came up to the idea that although one would have to pass a literacy test to be allowed to vote, an exception could be made to those whose grandfather had been eligible to vote before something like 1840. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court found the practice unconstitutional, but the term "grandfather rule" still has a very tainted origin. The term "rule of thumb" conjures up an image of convenience. After all, one's thumb is handily located right on one's hand. Unfortunately, the term has its origins in the English common law and allowed some men not to be held responsible for certain acts of domestic violence. I do not feel comfortable using that term, either, now that I know its origin.

Now, under what circumstances do figures of speech have merit? I don't mean to suggest that this issue should be resolved entirely (or even primarily) by the decree of eccentric, absent minded marketing professors (although they often have great insight), but let me put out for discussion a set of criteria:

1. The metaphor makes sense to both the speaker and the listener. In this context, the following choice is ironic, but the metaphor of two people "not seeing eye to eye" seems to make intuitive sense.
2. The metaphor becomes a private joke (see my previous entry on mathematics for more on this topic) between an "inside" group of people.
3. The metaphor contains a delightful element of irony.
4. Although the metaphor is not clear, it is so "cool" as to justify itself. In Danish, there is a term of "going cucumbers," for example, that refers to thinks going terribly astray. This slang, to a large measure, depends on the metaphor not making sense for its appeal. A language can afford a limited number--how large a number, I do not know--of these expressions. We must, however, guard against emperors' meaningless new metaphors that we think other people find cool even though the coolness, in truth, escapes all of us.
5. There is a historical context to the metaphor. It may or may not make sense on its own, but its origin in popular culture is clear. Expressions that originated on episodes of Seinfeld may qualify. (I never got into that series since I was very uncomfortable with the laugh track used in the show, so I cannot give examples.)
6. Other expressions that have a legitimate and compelling purpose (my "elastic clause" to allow for contingencies I have not thought of).

By the way, I previously made reference to a term referring to a socially inappropriate remark. If one were to say something awkward or embarrassing, wouldn't it actually be helpful (albeit not hygienic) to put a foot into one's mouth? The foot might actually muffle the expression so that fewer people would hear it.

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