Sunday 4 October 2009

Metaphors and unravelling

Arts & Letters Daily recently pointed to a story on the importance of metaphor in language. Which of course reminded me of the old Star Trek TNG episode where the Enterprise encountered a species that spoke entirely in metaphor: their universal translator could understand the words but could not translate the meaning of the stories or even that the problem was that the species spoke in metaphor.

Knowing that metaphor hurts rather than helps without shared referents, I tend to draw on Simpsons rather than Shakespeare in my lectures. But I was still very surprised to find a quarter of my class had never heard of "Jekyll and Hyde" when it was referenced in an assigned reading. When I gasped that Jekyll and Hyde were even covered by Bugs Bunny, they objected that they couldn't be expected to remember things from Saturday morning cartoons from their childhood.

Today's National Post points to further changes in the base of common knowledge
Half of American high-school seniors surveyed recently thought Sodom and Gomorrah were a married couple. A McGill University professor’s reference to the patience of Job drew blank stares from students in his religion course. An art history teacher in France found children were mystified by the “strange bird” (a dove representing the Holy Ghost) common in Renaissance paintings.
No stage one intro course at university can make up for not having acquired some basic cultural referents earlier on.

I suppose I oughtn't complain. My undergrad profs probably complained of my cohort's lack of familiarity with the Epic of Gilgamesh.


  1. Metaphor is a major topic in linguistics and the philosophy of language. It was Donald McCloskey who got me onto this, with the first edition of his Rhetoric of Economics. Also see the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.

  2. Sodom? That's that metal band, right? But I've never heard of Gomorrha. Are they any good?