…Or What’s a Metaphor?

[gads, you guys are getting to me!] Re: additions and deletions from dictionaries—I’m less sure than I used to be that lexicographers are mere “harmless drudges.” Shrinking the language, and deliberately deleting the stuff our children are least likely to be familiar with, is scarcely harmless.

But then, I’ve been unhappy with the state of lexicography for a while anyway. Most dictionaries don’t include what my former students needed most: derivative terms, including past tenses and plurals, and usage clues, such as which propositions/adverbs follow which adjectives/verbs. As a result, I spent 20+ years reading papers in which my students “sayed” and “seeked” “copys”, and were “different to” their friends.

The other thing most dictionaries are short on is etymology, with the result that most of us have no compunction about claiming to have been “undermined” by a “heat wave,” because we don’t even realize that those terms are metaphors with concrete referents (mines and waves, for instance.) Back when I was an English teacher, I had a lot of fun pointing out to my students that almost all profanity is metaphor. It made the subject stick in their heads remarkably well. Think about it. Sexual congress as a metaphor for ill-dealing? Excrement as a metaphor for unnecessary household goods? Urination as a metaphor for enforcing dominance? You get the idea. I then went on to point out that cats, for instance, understand metaphor. When your cat tastes a new brand of food and responds by scratching at the floor around the bowl the same way he does in the cat box, what is he saying if not “This food tastes like excrement?”

The OED is fun, and includes some of these metaphorical antecedents, but not nearly enough. Am I missing some super-dictionary by sheer oversight (or, as Johnson would say, sheer ignorance)? I welcome suggestions.



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