Conventional and creative metaphors

In a recent comics feed, the 6/27 One Big Happy, with an exchange between Grandma Rose and the grotesquely smiling Avis


In panel 2, the baggage of emotional baggage is a conventional metaphor, one no longer requiring the hearer to work out the effect of the figure and so now listed in dictionaries. But then Rose immediately brings it back from dormancy to life in a long riff of creative metaphor (in panels 2-4), composed on the spot and calling up a complex and vivid scene for the hearer.

We use the same term, metaphor, for both phenomena, and the mechanism is the same in both — but one is a historical phenomenon (whose figural character is usually out of the consciousness of speaker and hearer), while the other is a phenomenon of discourse production and comprehension in real time.

The distinction is familiar in many other contexts: errors of many kinds that have become conventionalized as new lexical items or constructions, speech act idioms (conventionalized) vs. indirect speech acts whose effects have to be calculated in context, and so on.

baggage. For this word, the conventionalization of the mental contents sense is explicit in the NOAD entry:

noun baggage:1 [a] personal belongings packed in suitcases for traveling; luggage. [b] the portable equipment of an army. 2 past experiences or long-held ideas regarded as burdens and impediments: the emotional baggage I’m hauling around | the party jettisoned its traditional ideological baggage.

Note: the literal and more figurative senses don’t have equal status in the minds of speakers. If I ask you what baggage means, and you answer by quoting the definition in 2 to me, I’m going to be dissatisfied with your answer: that’s not the meaning, I cry out, though it’s a possible meaning.

Similarly, if I ask you what nut means and you answer that it means ‘testicle’ (a conventionally metaphorical sense), I’m not going to be satisfied with your answer; I expect one of the three senses appearing in this cartoon by Jaco Haasbroek (a freelance illustrator and designer based in Cape Town, South Africa), and I might even insist on the  plant-part sense as the central one, but ‘testicle’ is just out of the competition:


More testicular words. The natural world presents us with any number of objects that could be pressed into service as bases for metaphorical reference to testicles; different languages have conventionalized different ones: for English it’s nuts and balls; for Spanish reference to cojones, eggs (huevos) and balls (pelotas); for German reference to Hoden, eggs (Eier), balls (Bälle) and bags (Säcke); etc.

These are the metaphors you get off the shelf; but creative metaphorizing is always possible. So in English, where eggs ‘testicles’ is not conventionally available:

If Bitcoin makes a rise about 111,79% while I’m sleeping your buy and hodl strategy has kicked me in the eggs. Good luck with that. (link)

(from Wikipedia: “Hodl (often written HODL) is slang in the cryptocurrency community for holding the cryptocurrency rather than selling it.”)

Similarly, though neither English nor Spanish nor German has conventionalized references to avocados, mangos, or eggplants as metaphorical testicles, all three are available for creative metaphorizing (Ouch! He kicked me right in the mangos!).

3 Responses to “Conventional and creative metaphors”

  1. chrishansenhome Says:

    A newer meaning of “nut” these days, especially on Snapchat, is “an ejaculation”. Example might be “I had one big nut this morning before I got out of bed.” It’s sometimes spelled with a double-t for emphasis, I guess: “nutt”.

    Being on Snapchat exposes one to a lot of novel terms used by young people these days.

  2. chrishansenhome Says:

    Oh, and it’s also often verbed, as in “I nutted in him today.”

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    As it turns out, the ‘ejaculation’ sense of nut has been around for at least half a century, arguably since the 1930s. I’ll post separately on the topic.

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