MED Magazine - Issue 17 - March 2004

What we talk about when we talk about words and language
by Diane Nicholls

Next in the series of articles on metaphor


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.

TThis month we look at words and language. What do we talk about when we talk about words and language?

Language is a tongue

We got the word language from the Latin word lingua, meaning 'tongue'. That the body part which we use for speech, among other things, should have come to be used to represent the speech faculty itself is hardly surprising and is reflected in other very similar 'body-part-equals-abstract-faculty' metaphors: the brain is, first and foremost, the organ inside your head, but secondarily, 'intelligence'; the heart is the organ in your chest, but has the third sense in MED of 'your feelings and emotions considered as part of your character'; an ear is 'one of the two parts at the side of your head that you hear with', but has the second sense in MED of 'the ability to hear and judge sounds'. Little wonder, given this tendency for extending meaning from the physical to the abstract, that the tongue and language should be so closely associated in our minds and in our everyday speech. There are 14 phrases listed in MED at the entry for tongue which illustrate the extent to which the tongue, as the organ of speech, has come to represent language and speaking. When you don't speak, you 'hold your tongue', 'bite your tongue', or are 'tongue-tied'; when you do speak, you 'find your tongue' and are at risk of making a 'slip of the tongue', and when you are suspiciously quiet, people will ask you 'has the cat got your tongue?'

There are also many examples of the tongue being referred to in descriptions of people's way of speaking: a persuasive person has a 'silver tongue'; the person who speaks severely has a 'sharp tongue', when you are polite, you 'keep a civil tongue in your head'. And when someone speaks angrily to someone, they give them a 'tongue-lashing', as though beating them with their tongue. This brings us to the next metaphor, in which the words we use are weapons which can wound, in clear contradiction of the old adage 'sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me'.

Words are weapons

The example sentences in MED clearly show that while we may 'pay lip service to' the 'sticks and stones' phrase above, the language we use to talk about the effect words have on us tell a different story. Here are a few examples:

A duel of words
The debate on the causes of global warming has turned into a bitter war of words
He lashed Lucien mercilessly with harsh words
She was deeply hurt by his hard words
Her words pierced Sophie's heart
Sharp words were exchanged
His words stabbed her to the heart
Her words struck a chill into me

Words are also described as punchy, hard-hitting, or cutting. We talk about words as though they are physical objects which can be wielded as weapons or tools to cut, stab, pierce, lash and strike each other.

Words are a liquid

Words and language are also talked about in the same language as we use to talk about liquids. They move in the same way as liquids. Somebody's language or speech can be fluent (from Latin fluere, meaning 'to flow'). We might describe a conversation as not flowing smoothly. When somebody talks enthusiastically and without stopping, they are described as being in full flow and you should be careful not to interrupt their torrent of words in midstream. When a lot of liquid shoots out from somewhere with a lot of force, the verb is to spout. The second sense of this verb in MED is 'to talk, especially for a long time or in a boring way'. The definition for the first sense of the verb to gush is 'if a liquid gushes, it flows quickly and in large quantities'. The definition for the second sense is 'if words or emotions gush from you, you unexpectedly express them very strongly'. And when somebody's speech is not direct, they are said to meander, like a river or stream.

Words and liquids are bound together in our language and in our minds. This is seen in descriptions of people's speech, too. Fast talk that is difficult to understand is a burble. The second sense of this noun is 'a gentle sound like water flowing'. Similarly, the sound of many people all talking at once is babble, and the second sense of this noun is 'the gentle pleasant sound of water as it moves along in a river'. The verb to murmur is used in the dictionary to describe both 'to say something in a very quiet voice', and 'to make a quiet continuous sound', like a stream: 'the little stream murmured at the foot of the garden'.

Babble, burble and murmur are onomatopoeic words — they are imitations of a sound, like pop and plop. It seems likely that the imitation of speech sense came first and that soon after that it was noticed that rivers and streams sounded the same. So, while spout and gush started out describing the movement of water and then were applied by analogy to words, babble, burble and murmur followed the opposite trend. This reciprocal relationship shows both the strength of the metaphor and the degree to which metaphors interact and self-proliferate. We could, for example, talk about a tidal wave or a geyser of words, or even about a puddle or stagnant pond of words, and people would know exactly what we were talking about. Equally, we could say that a fast-flowing river fulminates or rants and raves. This inventive use of metaphor is one of the key features of poetry, but it is important to note just how much of our everyday vocabulary is, in itself, poetic.

Words are food

Like the tongue metaphor, this metaphor is not surprising when we consider where words come from when we use them — they come from the mouth. A word can be a mouthful or we can put words in somebody's mouth. We use the same vocabulary to describe words as we use to describe food. In MED, words and language are described as raw, ripe, crisp, and honeyed. People eat their words, mince words, regurgitate other people's words, choke on words, and spit them out: '"Is that it - money?" She spat the word out'.

Many of the words we use to describe unintelligent or unintelligible speech or nonsense reflect this link between food and words. Words like humbug, waffle, tripe, and swill all have both 'food' and 'nonsense' meanings in the dictionary. Even the word gobbledegook, while it does not have a food sense, may perhaps be a combination of gobble (meaning eat) and gook (meaning goo or 'any thick sticky unpleasant substance'), suggesting that the person who speaks gobbledegook is trying to eat some indigestible matter. This month's feature article discusses some old-fashioned words for 'nonsense', and one example reveals that food and words/language have a very long history of being talked about using the same vocabulary.

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 words and language 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 anger.

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