Zooming Out

Pushing the Boundaries of Language: using metaphor to say what we mean

By Emma Goldenthal

Language is one of the most fundamental tools with which we communicate with others. We paint pictures, share stories, evoke emotions, and form deep, lasting bonds with and through our words. In doing so, therefore, we must be deliberate with these words so as to describe our thoughts and experiences aptly. But just how, exactly, do we know when our words are enough? As we constantly endeavor to express ourselves, how can we best navigate the rigid lexical definitions and customary contexts in which our words are so often situated? And how do we reconcile those situations in which there are simply too many suitable words with those in which we can hardly find a few? Sometimes, answering these questions is a matter of searching for the just-right, perfect word, and sometimes, I think, it means resorting to more figurative, creative means.

In the former case, traditional thinking tells me that I have a dictionary app on my phone for this very reason. If I have a thought that I want to articulate, or a conceptual line that I want to clarify, there are quite literally endless amounts of words at my disposal. If I don’t know what a particular word means, I can look it up, and if it doesn’t feel quite right, then I can easily find some synonym that does–insofar as we all agree that synonyms exist. I can handpick my words in this manner, set them upright on a nice shelf, and look at the image they create. Sometimes, the words on their own are enough to say what I’d like to; sometimes they capture an idea or a thought that I have, and they feel right, and they fit. This–of course–is the ultimate goal.

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Art by Emma Goldenthal

Sometimes, however, the words themselves aren’t quite enough. Words, like ourselves, fall into patterns of action and use, and these patterns wear us, and them, out quickly. And when a word, or even a phrase, is worn out, old, and commonplace, it quickly becomes a mere abbreviation for some equally stale concept. To only ever use vague words like happy/sad/beautiful in place of, for example, glad/tragic/breathtaking etcetera, is to squander the potential of the feeling or idea behind the statement, to dilute meaning by resorting to generalities. And even these slightly more specific words like glad/tragic/breathtaking and so on may themselves not be exactly right for a given situation–and what on earth do we do then?

There are few mental experiences more confounding than having a thought, feeling, or idea, and not quite knowing the words with which to express it. When faced with this particular stuck-ness, though, the last thing we should do is settle for saying anything less than what we really mean. It is precisely these moments of linguistic uncertainty, when no word fits properly, that call for real self-reflection and deliberate entanglement with language. These are the moments in which figurative language might offer a solution, when we find ourselves sifting desperately through a pile of words, all of them seemingly unsuitable.

The adjective “figurative,” according to my ever-reliable Merriam-Webster app, can be defined as “expressing one thing in terms normally denoting another with which it may be regarded as analogous.” When used to describe language, “figurative” refers to a departure from the literal use of words into more metaphorical territory. We don’t usually use figurative language when speaking to others, and for good reason: it isn’t the most efficient way to communicate if we’re just trying to say something in a straightforward way. But when ordinary language doesn’t quite do the trick, we can sometimes take the essence of an idea and nestle it within some figurative context in order to try and describe it better. Using figurative language as a filter, that is, we can sometimes express a thought indirectly by comparing it to an analogous concept, even if this concept is superficially unrelated to the topic at hand.

For me, it is the element of indirection that best characterizes figurative language. When we try to approach a thought or idea from the side–when we feed it with words selectively, and treat it with esteem as we slowly coax it out of its deep, hidden cave–we can come to understand it without resorting to rougher, more approximative or hurried means. The process may be slightly unconventional and drawn out, but if we have the time and space and patience to allow an idea to define itself, then we avoid frightening it into a shape that doesn’t quite describe it. In the slightly more literal spirit of George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” this means allowing our ideas to choose our words, and not the other way around.

Whether or not we use our words conventionally or metaphorically, what matters most is that we choose them, that their composition is the product of careful thought and refinement. Words, like us, do not have to be tethered to their definitions all of the time. And sometimes–oftentimes, really–it’s okay if they are, but only so long as we are deliberate and purposeful about how and when we use them. When faced with uncertainty about how to best express ourselves, therefore, careful word choice combined with a simile, metaphor, or analogy or two often does far better than a mere scattering of evocative but ultimately shallow clichés or generalities. It is through these more purposeful linguistic strategies that we can best treat our ideas with the attention and care that they deserve, and use our words and languages to expand, rather than constrict, our understanding of the world and ourselves.

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