Louise, my mother-in-law who died a few years ago at age ninety-one, grew up in southern Illinois with her siblings, including Bertha. The two of them did not get along well, finding various ways to be at odds with each other over the years. Even some time after Bertha died Louise commented to me, “Why, Bertha had a tongue that could sit on the front porch and pick grapes in the back yard!”
That exceptionally vivid and
creative imagery has stuck with me. As with any good metaphor, it communicates far more effectively and far more comprehensively what Louise had on her mind than if she had simply said Bertha was a gossip. James Geary’s I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World glories in the power and pervasiveness of metaphors.
Take the way we speak of the financial world, suggests Geary. It is awash in metaphors. We want to have plenty of liquid assets so that several revenue streams benefit our cash flow. Banks get bailed out and the government pumps money into the economy.
When you need money, you can tap a friend, sponge off relatives, dip into savings or–if you’re prepared to be unscrupulous–skim a little something off the top. When growth is buoyant, a rising tide lifts all boats. When options are underwater, though checking your investment portfolio feels like snorkeling into a shipwreck. . . Stocks do the most amazing things. They soar, surge, climb, leap, and perform all kinds of other superheroic statistical feats. Sadly, they also plummet, slide, plunge, drop, and fall. (pp. 27, 29)
But metaphors are more than interesting, more than colorful expressions that keep us entertained. They convey meaning and, as Geary says in his subtitle, shape the way we see the world. More on that in my next installment.