Saturday, October 7, 2000

More metaphors

Metaphors tend to have a time of vigour, after which they may fade or die. Those metaphors that lose all their force are called dead metaphors or they may continue as clichés or hackneyed expressions. Many metaphors have been literalised into everyday items of language: a clock, for instance, has a face and hands. The word ‘decides’ started life as a metaphor. Latin decidere meant to cut through something in order to achieve a conclusion or a solution. In their turn, conclusion and solution were once metaphorical— the Latin concludere, to shut up, and solvere, to unfasten. Of course, the deadness of a metaphor or its status as a cliché are relative matters. Life is a bed of roses, heard for the first time, can seem very poetic. Let’s look at some well-worn-out expressions.Wild-goose chase is almost 400 years old. It comes from England’s aristocratic past, when gentlemen whiled away the day riding or hunting. In a kind of follow-my-leader game, one horseman would gallop off across the fields, choosing the most difficult route in the hope that the riders following him would be thrown off at some fence, hedge, or ditch. This game was called a wild goose chase because the group of riders looked like a skein of wild geese in flight. The whole game must have seemed risky and pointless to the observers, as there was no animal to hunt or a race to win. To go on a wild goose chase became the silly or futile pursuit of some worthless or imaginary goal.

Metaphorical colour
September 16, 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

The expression ‘a nine-day wonder’ could have two origins. An old proverb says ‘a wonder lasts nine days, and then the puppy’s eyes are open’. For the first few days of life, puppies can’t focus properly, so they find the world a strange and wonderful place until they see it for themselves. This led to a metaphorical usage, the general sense being that people are easily impressed, but gain a clearer view of things once disillusionment sets in. The other origin could lie in the medieval religious festivals. On some occasions, celebration and prayer in the Roman Catholic Church lasted for as long as nine days. But, once the pomp, processions and merry-making ended, life returned too normal: ‘the nine day’s wonder’ of celebration was over.


The Hindi putra started life as a metaphorical word. As per Indian belief, the moment a person is born, there are three or four debts to be paid. The most necessary is the pitr-rin or the debt to be paid to one’s father and forefathers .To be free from this debt, the birth of a son is essential. The person who is not blessed with a son has to go to hell after passing away. Now, this hell was called put and a rescue was a tran. So, the person who brought an escape-route from this hell became a putra or put+tra. This little story can be found in the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and Manusmriti as well. The metaphorical context has long been forgotten but the word lives on.

— Deepti

This feature was published on September 30, 2000