Issue 109: 2017 06 15: Metaphorically Speaking (Chin Chin)

15 June 2017

Metaphorically Speaking

An experiment in Sichuan.

By Chin Chin

Everyone has a preference as to manner of speech.  American Indians don’t like white men who speak with forked tongues.  Edward II was only eligible to be Prince of Wales because as a baby he spoke no English.  Now though, we have something different.  Research by the University of Electronic Science and Technology in Chengdu, Sichuan reveals that women find men more attractive if they use metaphors. Apparently this is not just because the women in question like figurative compliments.  They also like metaphors to be used when describing their possessions.  The man who says “your garden is a sea of flowers” does better than the man who says “your garden is well planted”.

It seems likely that the 116 women who took part in the test were all Chinese, but it is hard to see why other women would not share the same view.  Perhaps they always have and found our Neolithic forbear who said “come back with me and be the light of my cave” preferable to his more oafish cousin who said “come back and do the dusting”.  No, there is no reason to think that the preference is modern, exclusively Chinese, or for that matter restricted to women.  Perhaps we all just prefer people who speak in metaphors, generally.

Before you can put this to the test, it is important to understand what a metaphor is.  We all knew once, when we took GCSE English or its equivalent, but it isn’t the sort of knowledge that you need much and, like the entries on the periodic table, it gradually rusts and slips away.  One knows, of course, that there is some sort of analogy involved but to go further than that most of us have to dust down the dictionary or tap a search into the keyboard.  A number of things become clear immediately.  The first is that a metaphor is not the same as a simile.  If you find yourself saying “like” it is probably a simile or you are a teenager with the unfortunate habit of ending every sentence with that word.  There is no evidence of either of these making you more attractive or interesting.

A metaphor seems to be a word used in a non-literal sense, but if you go beyond the dictionary and look at Fowler’s Modern English Usage you find that there is a lot more to it than that.  There are live metaphors and dead metaphors, for example.  That in itself is confusing.  Supposing that someone rather attractive turns off the television, and you (anxious to impress them with your linguistic dexterity) comment “aha, the silence of the grave.”  You might think that you had coined a dead metaphor.  No, you haven’t.  It is a live one.  That is because it is the sort of metaphor people are conscious of rather than a phrase which has become so ingrained in the English language that the imagery has disappeared.  The word “coined” in the last sentence but three is perhaps half dead.  On the other hand the phrase “cockles and mussels, alive, alive oh”, isn’t a metaphor at all because the cockles and mussels actually were alive – or so you hope if you have eaten them.

Then there is the mixed metaphor.  One may sympathise with those who on being dumped by their partners say “I saw my rock sailing away” but it is harder to forgive the English.  That, however, should not be confused with successive metaphors in which different imagery is used in different sentences.  These are perfectly respectable.

As far as I know, there is nothing in the research from Chengdu to tell you which sort of metaphor is be preferred.  Do dead metaphors count at all?  Will the man who uses a half dead metaphor go down as “subtle and sophisticated” or as “half baked and rather wet”?   Will mixed metaphors, so condemned by the grammarians, give your conversation a racey but attractive slant as though you were writing for one of the tabloids?  Could “he uses mixed metaphors, you know” be a badge of sexual attraction equivalent to “he always packs a magnum”?  How do people feel if they were expecting a metaphor and get a simile instead?  Is it like being offered a box of chocolates and discovering that they are all slightly stale?

To answer these questions you have to look at the rationale which lies behind the preference.  According to the academics it arises because people who use metaphors come across as cleverer than those who do not.  Perhaps though it runs deeper than that.  People who use imagery often use it to avoid detail and to cover the faults in a weak argument.  They can please everyone by sounding as if they agree with them.  Of course they come across as charming and sophisticated.  Of course they will let you down later when the reality behind their metaphors is exposed but, after all, relationships are often transient nowadays.

Whatever the basis of the attraction, it is shortly to be augmented.  As we enter the age of robotics, dexterity with metaphors may become one of the features which distinguishes robots from human beings.  That isn’t to say that robots won’t be able to use metaphors.  They can be taught that as they can be taught anything else.  It is just that you suspect that imagery may not be their thing.

“To put it metaphorically you will be connected to an operator when the sands of time have run out”.  Not very attractive perhaps but not too bad as far as obscuring lack of content goes!

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