Using Figurative Language

Using Figurative Language Book Cover Blog post written by Herb Colston, author of, Using Figurative Language.

Many people think figurative language is special or unusual somehow, used only or mostly in poetry, song lyrics or other creative outlets, or just when a speaker/writer is being flamboyant. Some people even think it’s a bad form of language, used to baffle or mislead people, or to be uncooperative in some way, or that it’s incomprehensible (or just hard to comprehend) and thus not how we ought to communicate. Even if people are more appreciative of figurative language they still often acknowledge its presumed higher potential for being misunderstood.

A common question thus posed about figurative language is why it even exists. Why do people speak (write) figuratively when more direct ways are available? Or, put most pointedly, why don’t people just say what they mean?

Using Figurative Language attempts to address this question. It reviews and discusses several decades’ worth of interdisciplinary research and theorizing which show first that the question itself is a bit odd. Many people don’t realize that speakers have been using figurative language as long as we’ve had language, and that on some level, there isn’t even a principled way to distinguish figurative from other supposedly nonfigurative language. Figurative language is also way more prevalent in normal everyday talk and writing than most people recognize. Although many of its instances can be creative and colorful as in song lyrics etc., most of it shows up right under our noses in ways we may not notice as figurative. By way of example, although Linguists and Psycholinguists would certainly argue over this specific quantity, one could readily claim the text I’ve used thus far in this blog post has well over three dozen figures in it, far more than the perhaps more obvious, ‘colorful’ and, ‘under our noses’. Figurative language is stealthy.

As for the misinterpretation likelihood, true, figurative language can be and is misunderstood occasionally, but so is purported non-figurative language in all the ways it can be unclear. Figurative language can also provide incredibly rich meaning. I’ve often described it as, “Meaning in concentrate—just add brain”. So the above question presumes we have the option of just omitting figurative language from talk and text to improve communication when doing so would be effectively impossible.

Despite the oddity of the question, though, the book also gives us the general answer to it— we use figurative language because it does things for us, things not as easily done with other kinds of language. These ‘things’ include meaning enhancement (for instance, by metaphor – “That job interview was a root canal”), negativity management (by rhetorical questions – “Are those your dirty dishes?”, or verbal irony – “Yeah right, just hysterical”), persuasion hyperbole – “Doing it that way will take forever”, or idioms – “That’s a tough row to hoe”), compliance improvement (by indirect requests – “Could I ask you a question?”), as well as social engineering, humor, bonding, tantalization and many, many others. The book not only documents that figurative language does these things, it also explores how it does so. For this the book gathers explanations from psychology, linguistics, evolutionary biology, anatomy, neuroscience, the history and variety of communication methods, semiotics, philosophy and other fields interested in figurative language.

The book also goes beyond the general usage answer though to show that understanding what figurative language accomplishes requires thinking about more than just language or communication. Figurative language is intertwined with our senses (seeing, hearing, touching, etc.) how we move physically (walking, jumping, reaching, etc.) our emotions, our broader concepts, our mind-reading and memory abilities, the actual physiology of pronunciation and many other diverse aspects of human life.

Figurative language is perhaps especially intermingled in our social interactions with other people. It can function as social honey, glue, lubricant, a lever, a ladder, a weapon, a pedestal, a pillow, a trap, a Trojan Horse, territory marking, handcuffs, a Band-Aid and perfume, among many other things. As just one brief concrete example, speakers use more figurative language when interacting with people they like, admire or wish to impress in some contexts, and using figurative language for this succeeds generally for speakers—other people like you back or are impressed if you use it right. Poetry and romance are connected for a reason!

The book also deals with many other questions one can ask about figurative language. How should we study it? How has it changed over time? Have we exhausted its potential? How might we best explain it? How does it arise in children? Why is there occasional resistance to it? How prevalent is it out there in the world?

Finally, the book treats all these issues concerning figurative language with many examples taken from authentic recorded talk and text by speakers as well as from diverse instances in popular culture (e.g., movies, television, advertisements, news sources, cartoons, novels, commercials, the internet and others). It thus provides a treatment scholarly readers can appreciate, but also might be enjoyed by broader audiences as well.

Thanks to Cambridge for publishing it and future-thanks to everyone who reads it. I hope you find it enlightening and enjoyable.

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