Metaphorically Speaking

On average, how many metaphors do human beings use in the course of daily speech? It’s a lot more than you probably think.

Skip the next section to get right to the answer. Read through if you’re interested in how I came upon the figure. (It has to do with New Testament Greek and various interpretations of what the Apostle Paul has to say about an issue in the early church in Corinth regarding prostitution. I should note: by no means do I wish to add to the demonization of sex workers. Rendered in English, the language of the passage in question, which I do not quote below, requires, I think, a trigger warning. With that said, there are important contextual and historic details that do not make it into “plain English.” In short, Paul seems concerned with Christians engaging in pagan rites through what as known as temple prostitution.)

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I was doing some reading on the metaphorical linguistics of the Apostle Paul, chasing a hunch that what he has to say about prostitution in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 may be metaphorical, or, at the very least, practical in ways that have nothing to do with sex work. What if, for example, evangelical and fundamentalist Christians wed to Donald Trump considered the possibility that they were engaged idolatry? Certainly, that’s not a new charge. But passages like this excerpt from Psalm 146 haven’t seem to taken hold:

Praise the Lord.

Praise the Lord, my soul.

I will praise the Lord all my life;
    I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
Do not put your trust in princes,
    in human beings, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;

We know a thing or two about the ways some evangelicals and fundamentalists, when convenient, fixate on sex. What if the real sin is joining yourself (and by extension, in Paul’s thinking, joining Christ) to the bacchanal of hatred, racism, carnage, and terror that was January 6? If a certain set of self-identifying “conservative Christians” yawn away the charges of idolatry, maybe something more scandalous will be more convicting.

Likely not, but that’s how I got to the primary source for today’s literary reflection. I’ve talked before about dying metaphors (it’s a relatively popular post here, almost up there with no, Mad World is not by REM) and again here and here.

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It turns out that we use a lot of metaphors.

(Citations are at the end of this post).

So I knew all about dying metaphors, but I had never heard of frozen metaphors (given the context, the term brought to mind old jokes about Calvinists). There seems to be some conflation, at least on Wikipedia, between frozen and dead metaphors. Frozen metaphors seem to have gone more fully and more finally through the process of literalization. I had never really thought of “table leg” as a metaphor of any kind, or even a turn of phrase. I have always thought of it as the literal object. What else would you call the leg of a table, anyway? Was there some point in the history of English language where “hands of the clock” was considered a poetic expression? When we think of metaphors, it’s usually in the context of literature, polemics, propaganda. Turns out they’re right in front of us in the every day use of things we take for granted.

In the end, of course, we might admit that because we can only know objects through our senses (Kant, and others), every single one of our experiences is a kind of metaphor. In that case, to use another, Gibbs is probably low-balling.

This footnote is from Wanamaker, Charles A. “METAPHOR AND MORALITY: EXAMPLES OF PAUL’S MORAL THINKING IN 1 CORINTHIANS 1-5.” Neotestamentica, vol. 39, no. 2, 2005, pp. 409–433. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43048553. Accessed 12 Jan. 2021; the original Gibbs paper is here.

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