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What we talk about
when we talk about anger

by Diane Nicholls

Next in the series of articles on metaphor

• Introduction
• Emotions and the body
• Anger is indigestion
• Anger is heat

• Expressing anger is exploding
• Anger is madness
• Further reading
• Next in the series


A dictionary is far more than just a list of words in the language with their definitions and details of their accompanying grammatical behaviour. It is a vast repository of information about the culture and attitudes in the countries where that language is spoken. It is a snapshot of the way we see things and feel about things, of the images and metaphors which we use, consciously or unconsciously, when we talk about any subject in our lives. Examining and understanding, en masse, the body of vocabulary and phrases which relates to any given subject is a useful way to discover the ideas and attitudes embedded in the words we use. It is also an interesting and efficient way to expand and enrich one's vocabulary.

Unlike idioms, which generally allow very little freedom for variation or invention, metaphors can be adapted, built upon and played with, so long as the central idea remains intact. Once we have grasped the core ideas relating to a topic in English, we can start to use these to create our own metaphors using synonyms to make our language more fluent, inventive, poetic, or even amusing. These novel uses may even catch on and find their way into future editions of the dictionary.

This month we look at anger. What do we talk about when we talk about anger?


Emotions and the body

Since our emotions are usually accompanied by bodily changes (increased heartbeat, blushing and flushing, butterflies in the stomach), it is not surprising that the language we use for talking about them is often based on bodily or physical descriptions; we glow with pride, shake with fear, and are slack-jawed with surprise.

Links between human physiology and human emotions have been made since the time of the ancient Greek philosophers and early medicine. These links were formalised in medieval times in the theory of the four 'humours': phlegm, blood, black bile, and yellow bile. According to this theory, the temperament of any person was determined by the balance of these humours in their constitution. People dominated by phlegm were calm, or phlegmatic; those dominated by blood were optimistic and full-blooded, or sanguine; those dominated by black bile were given to sadness or melancholy; those dominated by yellow bile, or 'choler', were given to anger. The word for bile, choler, was used to refer to both to the physical substance, and to the emotion of anger and remains in the French language as 'colère' - anger. The English word, anger, has at its roots connotations of constriction or strangulation which reflect the physical experience of this emotion. The same connection is also illustrated by German and Dutch eng, meaning 'narrow', Latin angustus, meaning 'narrow', and Greek ánkhein, meaning 'squeeze' or 'strangle'.

If we look at the language we use to talk about anger, we will see that though we may have moved on in our understanding of this emotion, the words we use to talk about it are still very much linked to these ancient ideas.


Anger is indigestion

The four humours mentioned above were also linked to particular parts of the body, with yellow bile or choler linked to the spleen and the stomach. Feelings of anger are said to be affected by and, in turn, affect, the stomach, liver and spleen. Hence, splenetic (from spleen) came to mean 'extremely angry or annoyed', someone who becomes angry easily came to be referred to as bilious (which has the primary meaning of 'feeling as though you are going to vomit food from your stomach'), somebody who is 'in an angry and unpleasant mood' is described as dyspeptic (originally, 'affected by indigestion'). Acrimony is linked etymologically to 'acid', perhaps stomach acid, and when we are angry we say we are fed up (as though we have eaten too much food) or that we have had a bellyful or are sick to the stomach. At the definition for gorge a strong link is made between feeling physically sick and feeling angry: 'if someone's gorge rises, they feel sick or angry'.

Further links were made to the four elements: water, air, earth and fire. The element of fire was linked to bile, and therefore to anger. Anger came to be seen as one of our 'hottest' emotions.


Anger is heat

Something that makes you angry makes your blood boil. In US English, if something makes you angry, it burns you up and 'an angry mood that develops slowly into something powerful' is described as a slow burn. Somebody who is angry is described as:

ablaze; breathing fire; hot under the collar; frazzled ('burnt'); heated; het up (from 'heated up'); incandescent (primary meaning 'producing light as a result of being made very hot'); incensed (from Latin incendere 'to set fire to'); seething (originally, 'boiling'); having steam coming out of their ears; steamed-up; steaming mad.

Somebody who is given to anger is a firebrand or a spitfire and they are described as hot-headed, hot-tempered, or fiery, while an angry situation or argument is fierce, flaming, or blazing: all words which are also used to describe fire and burning. Similarly, something that is likely to cause anger is described as inflammatory or incendiary. To bring things right up to date, when you send an angry or insulting message over the Internet, you flame.

Once we know the themes that run through the language we use to talk about anger, we can begin to explore using new expressions of our own. We might say, for instance, that we are 'engulfed in the flames of somebody's anger', that somebody's anger is 'a forest fire', or that we have been 'scorched' by somebody's angry words.


Expressing anger is exploding

Given that our emotions are so often described metaphorically as liquids which well up within us, which we pour out (pour your heart out) or which brim over or gush from us, however hard we try to keep a lid on them, it is not surprising that when the liquid of our emotions combines with the metaphorical heat of anger, what often occurs is described in terms of an explosion or outburst as though from a pressure cooker. Here are just some of the verbs and phrases in the dictionary that describe what happens when somebody expresses their anger:

blow up; blow a fuse/gasket; blow your top/stack; erupt (like a volcano); fume; hit the roof/ceiling; go through the roof; go ballistic (like a missile); blow off steam; vent; give vent to.

Images of explosion are the most common theme running through the way we talk about expressing anger. There are other expressions, of course, and we would be very pleased to hear from any reader who can explain where get your dander up or the American English expression to have a cow come from.


Anger is madness

In British English, the first meaning of mad is 'crazy' and the second meaning of mad is 'angry'. In American English, the 'angry' meaning is the first meaning. Though mad started out meaning 'insane', etymologically, the link between madness and anger in our vocabulary is both long-standing and strong. Indeed, it is going from strength to strength and it seems likely that in British English, too, 'angry' may well, one day, become the first meaning of the word mad. In all of the expressions below there are both 'crazy' and 'angry' meanings:

mad; go mad; go bananas; go berserk; go crazy; go loopy; go mental; drive somebody bonkers; madden; drive somebody nuts; drive somebody scatty

In many of the crazy/angry expressions above, the adjective on its own means 'crazy' (e.g. bananas, loopy, mental, bonkers, nuts, scatty), yet it is when you drive somebody nuts/loopy/bonkers etc. or they go nuts/loopy/bonkers etc. that they 'become angry'. This suggests that when someone becomes angry or is made angry, they become 'crazy'.

This metaphorical blurring of the boundary between craziness and anger perhaps reflects a deep-seated fear of anger as an emotion that can take complete control of us and overturn our reason, making us do crazy and terrible things, and even foam at the mouth (like a mad dog). Certainly, psychologists urge us not to bottle up our anger, but to release it slowly and carefully like a volatile liquid. Looking at the words and expressions discussed above, it does seem that thinking about the way we talk about anger might be a good place to start exploring our attitudes to this difficult emotion.

The metaphors and expressions listed above are all taken from the Macmillan English Dictionary and are not intended as a comprehensive list. We would be pleased to hear from any reader who can suggest any other anger metaphors in English which are not covered here.


Further reading

The Language of Metaphors, Andrew Goatly (Routledge, 1997)
Metaphors We Live By, G. Lakoff and M. Johnson (University of Chicago Press, 1980)


Next in the series

Next month, we will take a look at what we talk about when we talk about friendship.