A Series of Rhetorical Devices: Metaphor

Should you ever feel the need to harass your English teacher, ask them to define metaphor. No other device has received more attention and no other device has been as elusive as metaphor. The classical notion is that it works by substituting one word for another, that the metaphorical meaning and the surface meaning are differentiated by this device. But there’s a serious problem with this definition: it defines a host of other rhetorical figures and tropes. Some melodramatic person might even argue that the definition gets to the heart of what language itself does and hence it defines all possible linguistic and rhetorical devices. In a way, they are right. In another way, specifically by assuming that “language” as a general concept can act as a principle or term of classification, they may mislead. We are concerned with concrete linguistic objects, not metaphysical conjectures such as “language.” That means we want to speak about “a language” or “the language” or, specifically, the use of certain patterns and words of, in our case, the English language. Many of our ideas can of course be applied to other languages and some even more generally, but one needs to get to the derived application from a given case, not start by postulating airy entities like “language.”

First, let’s make a distinction between two kinds of rhetorical devices: figures and tropes. Let’s call passages of figurative language that have more than one word figures and distinguish these from tropes. Alliteration would thus be a figure, because you need at least two words to have alliteration. Tropes, on the other hand, are single words that display art in their form. Thus, we could distinguish, say, allegory (which is defined pretty much the same way as metaphor is: one thing used to mean another) from metaphors. This clears up many things, and we could proceed quite happily if it weren’t for a whole bunch of other tropes that seem to clash with metaphor. These include metonymy, synechdoche, catachresis, hypallage, and the like. (See Silva Rhetoricae for a great searchable database of figures and tropes with examples and definitions.) It often seems like many of the definitions overlap, or that the name of the device was designed for some specific archaic example that cannot help us in our taxonomic confusion. The best we can do is try to assuage some of that confusion by lumping the lot under the rubric of metaphor.

The Latin term for metaphor is translatio and we can think of metaphor as translating one term into another within a single language. This can of course be done in a number of ways. The array of metaphorical tropes, in turn, reflects the many strategies we have at our disposal to execute the translation. If we think of this translating through analogy, as things being put next to more or less similar kinds of things for whatever purpose, we can posit as its limiting cases synonyms and antiphrasis. Everyone knows what synonyms are, right? A synonym is a term that has more or less the same, ideally the exact, meaning as the term that is being translated. In any case, it’s as close as we can imagine we can get to the same meaning. Antiphrasis, in turn, is the use of an antonym to indicate the same meaning as the translated term has. That sounds fancy, but its use in ironic or sarcastic statements reveals it to be quite simple: “Oh, he’s a veritable genius!” said of an idiot, for instance, or calling a very large man Tiny would be two obvious examples. The rest of the metaphorical figures we can group inside this metaphoric spectrum. I haven’t done the actual work yet, so let’s leave it at that.

Assuming the idea of the metaphoric spectrum is valid, the different techniques of translatio can be broken down into different kinds of analogy. Thus, the type of analogy behind the metaphoric trope could be used to place the various tropes on the spectrum. But this is something we need not worry about right now.

So, what happens when we scrunch together the terms of an analogy to make a metaphor? Well, the schematic way of putting it would be to say that we take from the analogy A is to B as C is to D the terms A and C and switch them around. That is, Pop-music is to silence as rubbish is to hygiene becomes Pop-music is rubbish becomes Turn off that rubbish! That is a very generic representation of the workings of a metaphorical trope and, of course, metaphors are prone to display a bewildering array of possible interpretations. The ambiguity of metaphorical interpretations, or the interpretation of metaphorical tropes, should not be viewed as something lamentable but rather exactly the sort of fuzziness a language requires for it to be useful. It can be frustrating to note that the exact meaning of a metaphor is forever elusive, but we can deal with ambiguity and contingency by remembering that if meaning were transparent we would not be required to explain any of the things we are now trying to explain. If all were clear, we would not have anything to say to each other. If that’s too dramatic, you would agree that there are situations where clarity is not desired and thus being ambiguous should be kept at least a possibility.

One more distinction concerning the elements of analogy is in order. We already know that the pair A and B is called the theme and the second pair C and D the phoros. The other obvious way to pair these elements, following Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca again, is A and C, like we did above, and B and D. A and C we will call the superior terms, B and D the inferior terms. As you can see, in the example the superior terms were switched around, meaning that the metaphor you read in Turn off that rubbish! was in fact the superior term of the phoros, C. The others, A, B, and D, can be stipulated if one knows the language and its conventions, the situation where the utterance came up, to whom it was addressed and by whom, and so on. There are many things that do not come up in our simple schematic representation that contribute to the meaning of the metaphor, and indeed our schematic reconstruction, so the scheme itself is not sufficient for anyone to infer meaning. However, the existence of the analogical pattern of reasoning behind metaphors does offer an explanation to that nagging feeling that there is some hidden meaning behind some exceptional words in the first place.

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