Taking things literally

Yesterday’s posting of Calvin and Hobbes cartoons had two that turn on ambiguities involving more literal (or at least more “objective”) senses of an expression vs. more figurative (and more “subjective”) senses: one with I can’t put it down (said of a book) and gripping, one with a mind that wanders (graphically illustrated) and with lose one’s mind. Taking things literally is a source of much humor.

A while ago I posted about Michael Barton’s book It’s Raining Cats and Dogs: An Autism Spectrum Guide to the Confusing World of Idioms, Metaphors and Everyday Expressions (Jessica Kingsley, 2012). Barton, a young man with high-functioning autism, wrote a slim volume illustrating the problems that expressions with non-literal understandings pose for people like him — by illustrating the literal understandings in cartoons, along with an explanation of how they’re actually used. He presents his examples in six (significantly overlapping) groups:

classic idioms (raining dogs and cats)

shortened expressions (I feel like a pizza)

everyday expressions and sayings (I worked my socks off)

double meanings (catch the bus)

metaphors (He flew up the stairs)

instructions and statements (Take a seat)

Barton’s cartoons for the second and third examples:

Kids struggle with such expressions all the time. Here’s James Thurber writing about himself in the third person (in “The Secret Life of James Thurber”, in the New Yorker of 2/27/43, abstract here):

One of the only enchantments in his early boyhood was imagining literally some of the figurative expressions used by adults, such as a business man being tied up at the office; a man who left town under a cloud; a woman who was cut up when her daughter died; a woman who was all ears when she heard some news; a small girl crying her heart out.

Lots of people have illustrated be all ears, usually with people or animals with very big ears. But then there are things like this creation (from Carl Revell Photography):

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