Students should notice that metaphor is not literary in origin, but something at the heart of all language, especially in the spoken word. The liveliness and vigour of a language that delights its users comes especially from metaphor.

Metaphora is simply the Greek word for transference. The process of transferring semantics is often attended by humour and it certainly involves imagination.

Metaphor can be simply a predication. We can state that someone is a worm, a snake, a rat, a cow, butterfly, bitch, star, angel—etc; or we can use adjectives like bovine, equine, asinine, simian, and so forth.

Or it can be a substitution. Lampito in Lysistrata says that when Menelaus was going to kill Helen, she showed him her apples; and words of substitution are often found in colloquial language for parts of the body. A Frenchman, way back in the time of the Frankish empire, thought of calling someone’s head his ‘pot’ (testa) and that came to replace the word chef.

Or it can be an appellation, for something that needs naming. The face of a clock, the foot of a ladder, the cap of a pen, the clock’s fingers or hands, the legs of the table, the mouth of a river: these are about the transference of a word to denote something that needs naming. That same process caused the first anatomists to call parts of the body by names like flute, brooch, acorn, bowl and key (tibia, fibula, glans, pelvis, clavicle).

All this is to do with imagination, and more so are the metaphors that have become so memorable:

  • the Lord is my Shepherd
  • a new nation conceived in liberty
  • the paths of righteousness
  • the valley of the shadow of death
  • I have tested you in the fire of suffering
  • you have drunk the cup of punishment
  • He, ransomer from death and light from shade…
  • silvae laborantes
  • o, totus ardeo…
  • vulnus alit venis et caeco carpitur igni
  • vastum maris aequor arandum
  • There was the Door to which I found no key:
    there was the Veil through which I might not see…

Next post: Some Greek formations.

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