Thursday, June 29, 2017

Understanding the identitarian difficulty with metaphor and idiom

Notes: This is a follow-up to Four kinds of safe spaces and a question about idiom. Some of the quotes are from longer posts at Steven Brust’s Fourth Street Fantasy Remarks Generate Heat that touch on other subjects. I've done my best to include everything about metaphor and idiom to keep from misrepresenting anyone, but if you spot anything that should've been included, mention it in the comments and I'll update this post.

Greg Hullender said,
I’m a linguist, and we have a slightly different definition of idiom than the popular one, but one that gets used in a lot of examples is “He kicked the bucket” to mean “He died.” This is certainly not literal, but I’d argue it isn’t metaphorical either.
I said,
Greg, how is it not metaphorical? Kicking the bucket is not meant literally—it’s a metaphor for dying. There are several theories for its origin, but whether it was originally a bucket or a beam or something else, that idiom seems perfectly metaphorical. I’d love to hear your argument that it isn’t.
Then I went googling to learn more, and added,
There seems to be an argument that idioms, like cliches, are so familiar that we don’t have to process them as we do a new metaphor. But that does not mean they aren’t metaphors. It just means they’re familiar.
Then I thought a bit and said,
Y’know, Lydy and WW may be onto something. For those of us who try to use language consciously, idioms are metaphorical. But for people who often use an idiom, it functions as a unit of sound that the hearer does not think about because the hearers believe they know the meaning—they literally don’t think about it. So when Steve used “safe space” as a metaphor, the part of the audience that has a single understanding of “safe space” literally could not grasp what he was saying.
Greg Hullender answered my question about kicking the bucket:
If I say “The sea was a mirror,” that’s a metaphor. You know the sea isn’t really a mirror, but you know what I mean. I read novels in French, Spanish, and Italian, and when I run across a new metaphor, even though I’ve never heard it in English, I can always figure it out. (Contrast “simile” where I’d say “The sea was like a mirror.”)

But with “Kick the bucket” or “Everything was in apple-pie order,” there is no way in the world to figure it out without a visit to the dictionary.
And he quoted what I said about Lydy and WW being onto something and said,
Linguists refer to this as lexicalizing a phrase. That means it effectively becomes a new “word” in the dictionary–a word that happens to contain spaces–whose meaning cannot be deduced simply from the pieces. “Real estate” is a good example. One could argue “safe space” is too.

An idiom is a bit more than a lexicalized expression because, unlike the latter, an idiom is not “productive.” Note that I cannot say “The bucket was kicked by him.” Only certain grammatical forms of the idiom are valid, whereas a lexicalized expression should have the same flexibility as any other word.
Lydy, who continues to insist that "safe space" is a term of art that is neither literal nor metaphorical, announced that she knew what a term of art was. I said,
Lydy, you say you know what a term of art is, but a term of art has a specific meaning to the group that uses it, which is to say, it is meant to be understood literally by them. Which is why the people who understood “safe space” as a term of art were so upset when Steve used it metaphorically.

Greg, thank you. Your definition of idiom seems to be “obscure metaphor”–you need to know the references to make sense of the metaphor, but if you’re very familiar with a language, you can use an idiom to communicate without knowing its past.

As for “the bucket was kicked by him”, give the internet a little more time. 🙂
So what happened at Fourth Street:

Steve, thinking like a writer, used a metaphor. But he did not know that some of his audience were part of a group that understands "safe space" as a term of art and therefore were as confused as Scientologists would be by someone who used one of their terms of art as a metaphor.

Bonus: Safe-space - Criticism - Wikipedia

In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas - The New York Times: "But the notion that ticklish conversations must be scrubbed clean of controversy has a way of leaking out and spreading. Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe. It follows that they should be made safer."