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How Steven Pinker Sensitized Me To Figurative Language

Updated: Apr 6

On page 48 of The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker talks about how stale idioms and metaphors deaden thought: "When a reader is forced to work through one stale idiom after another, she stops converting the language into mental images and slips back into just mouthing the words." He goes on to say that "even when a shopworn image is the best way to convey an idea, a classic writer can keep his reader engaged by remembering what the idiom literally refers to and playing with the image to keep it in her mind’s eye." He gives the example of the tired idiom in "Electronic publication is scholarship on steroids," which can be resuscitated and given a makeover with electronic publishing is "publication for speed freaks."

I had to put the book down and think for a few minutes. How have I been using idioms in my own writing (which is admittedly limited, being mostly confined to blog posts)? Do I use the same old stale idioms or do I create new ones? I'm sure I take the easy way out most of the time, but I recalled with pleasure a sentence on my website: "After completing my bachelor's degree in electronics from REC Trichy (now NIT Trichy) in 1987, like most Indian engineering college students, I cut myself loose from the engineering mother ship." The "mother ship" image came from within.

As I continued to read Pinker, I realized that he practiced what he preached. He's a consummately skilled writer (his wife is a philosopher and novelist, and I wonder — irreverently, I suppose — if she helps polish his sentences), and his writing bristles with fresh, vivid imagery. Further, figurative language began to pop out in the books I read. I always make notes when I read; usually they are points of fact that I find interesting, but now I began to note down striking metaphors and similes. (I also began to notice and admire original, well-constructed phrases, skilled word play, and words strung together beautifully like necklaces.) I have amassed a fair number of these and will be posting some of them on this blog. Pinker had succeeded in sensitizing me to the power of fresh figurative language.

Here are some examples of such language from the books I've been reading. First, from The Sense of Style: "Carve the notch above a sentence that does not elaborate or follow from the one that came before." Here, "carve the notch" means "start a new paragraph." The sentence is also an excellent practical rule of thumb for writers! Next, from My Childhood by Maxim Gorky: "My grandmother sewed and got the meals and dug in the garden, bustling about all day long like a huge top driven by invisible springs." I've just finished this book. It's a great autobiography — but not for the faint-hearted — that also showcases Gorky's mesmerizing powers of description.

Surely there isn't much scope for figurative language in scientific writing? Wrong! Consider this sentence in Blue Machine by Helen Czerski, a book on the ocean in the popular science genre: "You could view ocean water as an ionic dating agency: it provides a place for sodium and chloride to mingle, but it's only when the water itself gets quietly out of the way that the familiar pairing appears." Her writing is full of such surprises. Here is another little flourish: "The best surprises are often yet to come, as the data repaint your mental image of the ocean you thought you were in." Data are personified as a painter on the canvas of the mind. Helen Czerski is both a writer and a scientist.

I had seen it before and walked by without stopping, but on this post-Pinker evening, I paused to admire the glowing signboard and ponder the name for a few minutes. I took the photograph that heads this post and continued walking to my destination. My thoughts, however, were on Hungry Plates and the following question: Was "hungry plates" an example of a transferred epithet or of personification? These were terms I had learned in the English language classes in school. Are plates being personified or has the attribute "hungry" been transferred to the plates? Perhaps both are true? I read up on these terms subsequently, but I did not find the answer to my question. I do like the name "Hungry Plates." It's an inviting call to the stomach growlers passing by.

The Hungry Plates signboard reminded me another signboard that had impressed me with its creativity several years ago. I had to hunt for the photo in my archives, but I finally found it. The shop sold underclothes, and I loved its name. I remember stepping into the shop and asking the owner how he found the name; he said it was his own idea. In a way, our underclothes are near and dear to us; they are certainly near, and they are also dear because comfortable underclothes are a precious commodity.

What is the name for figurative language that relies on this type of oblique association? I had to do some research, and it threw up candidates like synecdoche. I thought I had it nailed when I found metonymy, but it doesn't quite fit. I found a similar example in A Glossary of Literary Terms by M.H. Abrams, and the following description is based on this book. "That reed was too frail to survive the storm of its sorrows," when referring to a person's death, is an implicit metaphor. The vehicle of the metaphor (that is, the metaphorical term itself, such as "the rose" in "my love is a red rose") is the reed, and the tenor of the metaphor (that is, the subject the metaphor is applied to, such as "my love" in "my love is a red rose") is the unspecified deceased. Abrams credits the vehicle-tenor nomenclature to I.A. Richards. Again, in Pinker's "carve the notch," the vehicle is the notch, and the unspecified tenor is the paragraph break; we have another implicit metaphor. Similarly, in our "Near and Dear" example, the vehicle is near and dear (that is, loved ones), and the unspecified tenor is underclothes. I believe that what the shop owner conjured up is an implicit metaphor — but, of course, I'm no Abrams. I'm merely a dilettante who delights in playing with ideas.

My next example, the name of an apparel shop, does not feature figurative language, but it's creative in its own right. I like the rhythm of "Hijab Hacks," and the juxtaposition of an old-fashioned garment with a trendy information age term is a little startling. It's also my excuse to introduce the cartoon on the following page on Marina Pantcheva's website, English Language Helpdesk: English Grammar. We could follow the lead of the teacher in the cartoon and hack other subjects; math, for example, could become Number Hacks. I recommend the website wholeheartedly; Marina's articles on grammar are models of clarity and logic.

My final example is a curiosity that I found in the memoir The Knife's Edge by Stephen Westaby, a heart surgeon. A young doctor on the phone wants Westaby to see a patient, whom she refers to as "an aortic dissection." Westaby helpfully explains to the reader: "In medicine, patients are frequently referred to by their condition than their name." This seems to be an example of the figure of speech called metonymy, in which, as Webster's explains, "a word that is associated with something is used to refer to that thing (as when crown is used to mean 'king' or 'queen')" (see On Synecdoche and Metonymy). The same principle is at work when I say "I like Agatha Christie"; I mean, of course, that I like her books.

In conclusion, let me leave you with a couple of similes I love. (1) In a business document I edited, the author compared traditional marketing with carpet bombing and persona-based marketing with surgical strikes. (Note: To the reader who is ploughing through pages and pages of dry technical content, a fresh metaphor is the refreshing sip of water that will give her the energy to resume the journey.) (2) The American chess grandmaster and psychoanalyst, Reuben Fine, wrote: "In such a position, combinations are as natural as a baby's smile."

As an exercise in generating fresh images, I set myself the problem of completing the following phrase with an original, striking simile: "a metaphor as fresh as ....". Try it out! A metaphor as fresh as bread from the oven? A metaphor as fresh as dew on a blade of grass? A metaphor as fresh as the water of the lake no man has seen?

Take your cue from Gambhir's offering below. Let your imagination run riot!


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