Saturday, September 23, 2000

Broader vistas
September 2, 2000
August 19, 2000
August 5, 2000
Partial twins
July 22, 2000
Language growth
July 8, 2000
June 24, 2000
The law and Latin
June 10, 2000
Vague words
May 27, 2000
Words from war
May 13, 2000

Metaphorical colour

MUCH humour is derived from applying metaphorical phrases literally. When facing your very angry boss, try picturing the boss as a bull and yourself as a Spanish matador, waving a red flag before the person and the humour of ‘a red flag to a bull’ will be clear. The humour aspect has many interesting dimensions which one can discover sitting idle on a rainy day. Such phrases are often dismissed as cliches. But the point is: then what are ‘good morning’ and ‘how are you’? Certain expressions are apt in certain situations and cannot be replaced without loss of clarity. For the language-user who is too lazy to think of words, these come as a god-send. And for the language-user who is not lazy but busy, they are time-saving devices. Metaphorical expressions add colour to language as well.

No point beating about the bush, let us get down to brass-tacks. See how quick and easy it is? "Beat about the bush" comes from the old practice of bat fowling or bird batting, as it was called. In this activity, birds were hunted at night while they were roosting in bushes. The bushes would be disturbed by bats or clubs and the birds caught in a net or stunned as they tried to escape. The beaters had to disturb many bushes before reaching one that contained birds. They would have been beating about the bush until they discovered the bush that really mattered. The fact the person who beat the bush was not necessarily the one to catch the birds led to another metaphorical expression which has not survived time. At one time, beat the bush meant to do work for the benefit of others. This practice of bat-fowling led to the proverbial ‘a bird in hand is worth two in the bush’ too. For the original bush-beaters it was a case of trial and error, but ‘beat about the bush’ implies that a speaker is deliberately evading the issue.

When a person accepts a difficult situation without showing emotion, putting a brave face on things, the situation can be summed up with ‘bite the bullet’. The expression is not very common these days but fits into many situations neatly. (For instance, Hansie Cronje made a clean breast of things while biting the bullet.) The meaning becomes clearer with the background of the practice of giving a wounded soldier a bullet to clinch between his teeth in order to distract him from the pain he was feeling elsewhere. The bullet often used to be a part of the army surgeon’s kit. Thank God for anaesthesia!



Words comprising a metaphorical expression do not separately imply that meaning. Terhi means crooked and Kheer is rice-milk pudding, while Terhi kheer is a difficult matter. Sir Khaana, Havaa lagna and Khun ka pyaasa fall under this category. At times, adjectives take on another meaning and when added to a noun, form a metaphorical expression. Andhi sarkar unjust government; taka sa jawab, point-blank reply; gahri neend, deep, sound sleep; tang hall difficult condition and Khali haath, empty hands.

— Deepti

This feature was published on September 16, 2000