Life is a contest – how idioms evolve

baseballIn their classic book Metaphors We Live By (1980), Lakoff and Johnson argued that the whole way we view the world – the way we think, act and live – is governed by underlying concepts which are metaphorical in nature: for example ‘argument is war’ or ‘time is money’. We often think of metaphors as something unusual and poetic, challenging us to look at things in a different way, and literary metaphors may do just that. Everyday metaphors – idioms – on the other hand, may do the opposite. New idioms catch on because they fit into the way we already view the world.

The language of sport is a very fertile source of idioms. We love to view life, business or politics in terms of a game or contest. For Americans, the national sport above all others is baseball. Inside baseball means expert knowledge about baseball but it is also used for technical information about any subject (especially when there is too much of it, as in Don’t give me all the inside baseball.) Batting average is a term in both cricket and baseball but only in American English does it also mean ‘the level of success or achievement that a person or company has in an activity’. (The company’s batting average with new technologies has been spotty recently.) Wheelhouse has spread from its literal meaning in sailing to idiomatic uses in both baseball and life: right in your wheelhouse is the area where it’s easiest to hit the ball and also where you feel most comfortable and in control. If the situation gets more challenging, however, you may need to put on your game face (= a serious expression) so as not to let your opponent know what you are thinking. And if things get really serious, you may even find that life has stopped being a game and become a battlefield. If you are lucky you will manage to dodge a bullet but there is always a risk that innocent people will get caught in the cross hairs.

A conceptual metaphor that we can apply to language itself is the survival of the fittest. Words and expressions must adapt or die. There are many examples of idioms that have outlived their literal meanings. Some recent idioms reference items that are already old-fashioned or obsolete. Others have extended their use by changing their form. Some people keep repeating the same thing over and over in a way that is very annoying like a broken record (but who actually listens to records any more?) ‘What’s that in old money?’ we Brits of a certain age might ask when faced with ‘newfangled’ measures like kilograms. (The UK and Ireland decimalized their currencies in 1971.) new words_1A long time ago people used to wear hats in all weathers and to take your hat off to somebody was a sign of respect. The expression I take my hat off to you survived even when it became a metaphorical hat, not a literal one. Now there’s a new twist: in electronic communication, the preferred form of this expression is the ultra-concise hat tip, as in Hat tip to Jen Bradbery for the link to this blog.

Other new idioms reflect the activities and concerns of the time. During the 2016 elections for Mayor of London there was much discussion of dog whistle politics. It is well known that dog whistles sound at frequencies that dogs can hear but humans can’t. The term can be applied to a political message that is only intended for and heard by a particular group of people. (He made use of the dog whistle on issues like immigration and crime.) And President Obama popularized the mic drop. This is the act of deliberately dropping your microphone at the end of a performance or speech that you think you did particularly well. If there’s no microphone, never mind, you can drop it metaphorically: Wow! Boom! Mic drop! The US now has a new president and we may be entering a new era of fake news, post-truth and extreme vetting – three of the most recent items to be added in this update. Preliminary analyses in the media of Donald Trump’s language suggest he favours simplicity, repetition and hyperbole over metaphor. Is this the new normal?

Nonetheless, there’s a golden thread that runs through all of this. That’s an idea or feature that is present in all parts of something, holds it together and gives it value. It’s that language can express anything in human experience. If there is no word for the precise idea you want to convey, you can use your creativity and make one up. Metaphors are an easy way to do this, because of the extent to which we already view the world in metaphors. If other people recognize the concept behind your new expression, they may start using it too.

Finally, and on a completely unrelated note: buggy, glitchy, laggy, spammy, techie. Do you notice a trend in these new informal adjectives connected with computing? Which is the odd one out? Check out all the new words and meanings added to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries site this month here.


Reference

Lakoff G. and Johnson M., Metaphors We Live By, The University of Chicago Press; 1980, 2003

Diana Lea taught English in Czechoslovakia and Poland before joining Oxford University Press as a dictionary editor in 1994. She has worked on a number of dictionaries for learners of English, including the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and the Oxford Collocations Dictionary. She is the editor of the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurusa dictionary of synonyms and of the ELTon award-winning Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English.

How new words are created

4.1.1‘Well, “slithy” means “lithe and slimy”… You see it’s like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word.’

In this way, Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass tries to explain some unusual words to the curious Alice. Slithy didn’t pass into general use, but the idea of the portmanteau word certainly did, and has survived long after the portmanteau itself – a large heavy suitcase that opens into two parts – has fallen out of use.

A portmanteau word is created by combining the beginning of one word and the end of another and keeping the meaning of each. A less colourful term for it is a blend and it is one of the more ingenious ways in which new words can be generated. Among the hundred new words added to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online this month, are hangry (angry because you are hungry) and frenemy (someone who is both your friend and your enemy). ‘Hack’ combines with ‘activist’ to give us hacktivist (a political or social campaigner who secretly looks at information on someone else’s computer system) and with ‘marathon’ to form hackathon (an event at which a large number of people work together to develop new software products in a matter of days).

Some new compounds are like portmanteau words but just take the beginning of each word: dash cam (dashboard camera) and EdTech (educational technology) are two examples. Short words can be absorbed whole into the new word and they can generate both portmanteau words and new compound words. There has recently been a spate of new informal words attempting to capture the habits and behaviour of men: manscaping (man + landscaping) is when a man shaves off all his body hair in order to try and look more attractive; to mansplain (man + explain) is to explain carefully to someone (as if she’s dumb) something that she already knows all about; and man flu is simply a bad cold that a man treats as if it were flu or something more serious.

Some people complain that these new ‘man’ words are sexist and it is wise to be aware that they may give offence. This does not stop people from using them, however. Manspreading has an interesting history. This is the practice of a man sitting on public transport with his legs wide apart, taking up more space than he needs and preventing other people from sitting down. This term became popular when New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority ran a poster campaign against the habit. The posters never used the term ‘manspreading’: they simply said ‘Dude! Stop the spread.’ It was the media, taking up the campaign, who called it ‘manspreading’ and the term stuck.

Other words that have been generating new compounds recently include warrior and capital. A ‘warrior’ is any kind of campaigner – it covers quite a wide range, from class warrior and culture warrior to keyboard warrior and road warrior. ‘Capital’ is a valuable resource in the form of skills or knowledge or influence, including human capital, political capital and social capital.

New words form in other ways too. Suffixes can be added to form new derivatives with a different part of speech. If something has impact, then it is impactful. Interdisciplinarity and interoperability are the qualities of being interdisciplinary or interoperable. But there doesn’t even have to be a suffix. When two geeks get together they can geek or geek out over computing tasks, technical stuff or anything that interests them. The noun has become a verb.

Existing verbs can generate new phrasal verbs. Even though telephones no longer have dials, the verb dial has stuck and now gives us dial somebody in (to a conference call) and dial something up (to order something by phone). Equipment may or may not be controlled by dials, but, regardless, you can dial down or dial up the volume, heat or power. These terms can also be used figuratively: He called on both sides to dial down the anger. Or you can be/get dialled in: As an actor, she really gets dialled into her roles.

Language is endlessly creative and generative. Check out all the new words and meanings added to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries site this month here. And look out for the next update, when the focus will be on idioms.


About the author: Diana Lea taught English in Czechoslovakia and Poland before joining Oxford University Press as a dictionary editor in 1994. She has worked on a number of dictionaries for learners of English, including the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and the Oxford Collocations Dictionary. She is the editor of the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus – a dictionary of synonyms and of the ELTon award-winning Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English.