Mixed Metaphors

Sometime last year, I watched a TED talk about metaphorical language and came across the following comment by a user called robotpanda77:

Interesting presentation, but the fact that the average person speaks six metaphors a minute, no way.

The reason I still remember discovering this misguided skeptic’s comment is that it made me feel very clever. Why? Because they didn’t manage to write a single sentence without using a metaphor themself.

Look again. The word “way” is used figuratively. A way in its literal meaning is a path, but here it denotes possibility, transfiguring an empirical claim (“The average person speaks six metaphors a minute”) into a destination of sorts.

As the TED speaker James Geary said, “Metaphor is ubiquitous, yet it’s hidden.” He wasn’t talking about poetics; he was talking about metaphor as a cognitive necessity. Metaphorical language makes it possible for us to navigate minds that are capable of abstract thought. We take elements from our embodied experience of the world and apply them to intangible constructs.

If you gathered from this introduction that I’m here to discuss the finer points of conceptual metaphor theory, you are mistaken. But I do want to talk about one of my favourite abstract concepts and relate it to my personal embodied experience of the world. It’s a rather blunt one, but I love it nonetheless: the concept is called time. I take it that you’ve heard of it before. It’s quite popular. But if you’re like me and have made a habit of leaving it to the brainy science-y types to sort out such universal conundrums as the meaning of time, you’re probably in denial about your own share in causing all the confusion about what it is. That’s right: you’re a culprit too, because you use language to address past, present, and future even though you have no idea what you’re talking about. How careless of you.

Okay, no need to feel guilty. There’s a pretty straightforward explanation for our apparent mishandling of time: our minds are so epically bad at making sense of it (provided that it exists at all) that they’ve developed several linguistic coping mechanisms to help us out. And those are, you might have guessed, metaphors. Even something as simple as “I don’t have time” is a somewhat misleading statement. Can any of us possess something as evasive as time in the first place? Of course not! Okay, how about “to spend time with someone”? Same thing. And worse still, even if the word itself doesn’t come up, we still rely on these odd descriptions that presuppose a physicality of time. “Back in the day,” “the years ahead,” etc. So now all of a sudden time is some sort of axis that we move along? Come on! How am I supposed to keep up with that nonsense!

Ramble aside, though, it’s important to note that these phrases are not deceptions. They’re analogies, and rather fitting ones at that. There’s something that, given the tiny monkey brain I inhabit, just feels right to me about conceptualizing time, the driving force of change in the world, as a way of movement. It gives me a sense of control even though I’m well aware that I’m not sitting behind the steering wheel. Anyway, here’s somebody else who’s got a lot of symbolically resonant thoughts on change and time:

If I may deliver one of the most predictable progressive platitudes in response to this, I want to just say people hate change. And although I fancy myself a person who is very accepting of change as long as it furthers progress in the long run, I can’t deny that I’ve felt the same way as Taylor did when graduating middle school.

This is a place that through eruption or erosion says, ‘Listen, this time, I’d like to destroy myself; to paint my beaches black; to carve out all the bad parts with waves and waterfalls.’ How do you think it got so beautiful?

When I happen to find a topic worth blogging about, it’s mostly because I’m discontent with myself regarding that particular topic. This post is no exception: I’ve grown pretty tired of my present self, but I rarely ever bother to do anything about it. Self-destructing, even if the act of doing so promises to be liberating and rewarding, is fucking scary. So in retrospect, I should probably appreciate all the times such drastic change was forced upon me.

I remember that especially in middle school (which I didn’t have to graduate from since middle and high school were one continuous thing for me) I always got super anxious on the last day of summer vacation. It wasn’t the sadness of having to face the humdrum weekday routine of secondary education, though. It was just plain anxiety, plaguing little Phil until late into the night. Because somehow, the ever-grinding gears of time made every dawning school term seem like I was right on the cusp of that One Big Challenge that would eventually crush me. And although that feeling wore off after the first day of school, I was probably right: there were many crushing things to come. But I lived through all of them, which is something I couldn’t even have avoided in a time-travel loop of eternal summer.

Even with the late summer sun wrapping me in its comfortable web of lukewarm continuity, I ultimately had to face up to the fact that it doesn’t matter if I’m not in the mood for change. It’s simply inevitable. Besides, the passage of time has always been and will always be a mental model in the making. It’s true that the more slippery the concept, the more likely you are to bruise your knees falling down. But let’s relish these bruises and their badass lava-like crusts for a change. Because they aren’t going to heal faster from whining.


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