Brian’s post about the early bird, lovely post that it was, left a small, very nasal fly inside my head who has been buzzing away, demanding a good swatting. This little essay is meant to be a rolled up piece of paper with which to do away with him.

Brian began by pointing out that metaphors are mortal. He then went on to talk about ‘proverbs’ – “lockets with fossils inside” – a suggestion that they die too. I think perhaps Brian was conflating two things here that can be teased apart. Thus the fly.

My question then— Metaphors die, do proverbs?

So what is it for a metaphor to die? In one sense, it is what a linguist calls “lexicalization.” Which reminds me of a John Prine lyric from his new album –

Constantinople is a mighty big word
Got three more letters than Mockingbird
Put me on the mooring train…

Oddly, “lexicalization” has the exact same number of letters as “Constantinople” but let that go. Lexicalization simply means that a word grows a new sense. Now of course words are constantly—daily, even moment to moment– finding ways to draw their paychecks from a new employer. But when a word gets a new little number under its heading the sense that was once just a temp job is now an established line of work. Once a very witty man described his very witty fellow as a bright light, even brilliant. Now, look it up in the dictionary. Its #6.

Now I am putting this all in a more sympathetic light than we are used to doing. Usually the death of a metaphor is talked about in somber tones, as a death should be. What was lively in the language has become stale. Truthfully, though, I believe that it is more accurate to say that the plant has died and now fertilizes the ground for another plant to grow out of. There is really nothing tedious about dead metaphors when you consider that their carcasses are the currency of our talk. What we buy with them are new metaphors, ones with oomph.

But something is missing here, for sure. There is something right in labeling the use of dead metaphors – or dead something— as bad writing. Forgive this fit of self-reference (a regrettable habit of linguists) but consider the word “stale” in the last paragraph. I don’t like it and am only preserving it to make this point. It’s the kind of thing I would call a dead bit of language. I could have said ‘What was once fluid in the language has become dry’ or worked up something better still than that.

I think the style problem with ‘dead language’ comes from either a) using dead bits of language as if they were still alive—one likes their corpses a-moldering in the grave, not sitting in the living room—or b) just using the wrong term for the wrong thing. Problem (b) shows up in this context a lot because a recently lexicalized sense of a word is just that: recent. People make errors about what that sense is, or to put it more democratically, people have different associations. Its likely that a misfire in the associations between the speaker and hearer often makes it seem like the speaker is being flowery—and then we got problem (a). So, a metaphor can die an organic and, if you will, healthy death. Or its grave can be robbed, desecrated and generally troubled.

Now, where is the metaphor in “The early bird gets the worm?” Nothing is said to be something else here. Of course we are meant to think that we, getting the jump on our fellows, are (like) the early bird. But I am uncomfortable with calling this a metaphor. What it is is a proverb. A proverb is a statement, a sentence, a complete thought. I found a treasure trove of proverbs at this site. Here’s a couple I hadn’t heard before:

“A tree never hits an automobile except in self defense.”
“A girl with cotton stockings never sees a mouse.”

These are statements (propositions, in the jargon). They have subjects, verbs, objects and the whole bit. While it is possible for a metaphor to be very explicitly laid out in a statement (The Assyrian was a wolf) and, in fact, this is how we learn what a metaphor is in school, we all know that this is not how metaphors really come to us. We rarely say, out and out, that A is B when A is patently not. What we (well, Byron) say is “The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold.” The metaphor is in there but its not the statement, entire. Apologies to Ogden Nash. And I realize that I am conflating simile and metaphor here, perhaps. But in my view this is really a less vexing category problem than the one I am trying to sort out.

A proverb is a statement that hangs around because it resonates in the following way: Something besides what is said to be the subject seems like it’s the subject and something besides what is said to be the action described seems like it’s the action described. Etcetera. You can say “Good fences make good neighbors” about fences and the education of neighbors but the saying hangs around because, brought up in a different context, it speaks to things that aren’t really fences at all. Mr. Kalkavadge once butted in to a conversation that I was having with a fellow student in the coffee shop with the old saw “The greatest enemy of the good is the better.” Now we were not talking about Plato and the Good. We were talking about changing our pizza order.

I would suggest that a proverb can not die in the graceful way that I suggest a metaphor can die. It is simply too big and bulky an item to get properly mulched up into the soil. It can, however, very much like an invented word-sense, dry up from over-familiarity and intrude on the ear when its used in a context that is not quite right. There’s more to be said about metaphor and proverbs but that’s more than enough for now.