On War and Sports Metaphors for Argument

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

The vocabularies of sports and war feel natural for describing arguments and their performances. From battle, we describe arguments as swords, as they may have a thrust, may cut both ways, and may be parried. A case, further, can be a full-frontal assault, and we may rush once more unto the breach. There are defensive positions and rear-guard actions. One’s best arguments are one’s heavy artillery, and one may lay siege to viewpoints. And one may, on the sports model, score points or score own goals with successful or unsuccessful arguments, respectively. One may play soft- or hardball. Powerful arguments are slam dunks or home runs, and good rebuttals are counterattacks. Or one may change the subject with a punt. There’s no doubt that our vocabulary for describing what happens when we argue is thick with this metaphorical idiom. The question is whether it is a good thing or not – does the vocabulary of adversarial contest distort our relationship with argument? We hold it need not, but there are some concerns that must be addressed.

The first concern is that sport and war metaphors are misplaced because they presuppose (and seem to endorse) hostility between arguers, and this hostility has objectionable consequences. One’s objective in a game and in a war is to win, to defeat the adversary. As the saying goes, all is fair in love and war, so (leaving love aside) when we turn to the context of argumentation, the metaphors make it difficult to see what would be wrong with using all available means to win in argument. However, unlike in a war, successful argument depends upon arguers following the rules. Further, when one loses an argument, one nevertheless learns something about one’s views. And one may change one’s mind for the better. Losing an argument can be beneficial to the loser. The war and sport metaphors, so the objection goes, fail to recognize this complex of features of argument; for that reason, they are inapt. Read more »

Imagination and the Language of Wine

by Dwight Furrow

Research by linguists into wine metaphors have identified several source domains that help wine writers describe the faint and ephemeral features of poetry in a glass. “Wine is a building”, “wine is piece of cloth”, and especially “wine is a person” are a few of the rich diversity of potential likenesses that might uncover facets of a wine. There are after all many ways of being a body or a person with new variants continuously on offer. But how do writers identify, within these source domains, which likenesses will be compelling and how do readers come to understand what a metaphor means? Identifying source domains for wine metaphors must be supplemented by an account of how interpretation works.

Given the importance of variation and distinctiveness in wine appreciation and the need for linguistic innovation to capture these dimensions, theories of metaphor that explicitly link metaphor to the exercise of imagination will be most useful. The use of metaphor in wine language looks backward to conventional, entrenched descriptions while looking forward in order to capture the emergence of innovative taste profiles that require linguistic imagination.

To add more complexity to the mix, the use of metaphor in wine language serves two broad purposes that are sometimes opposed. On the one hand writers use metaphor to communicate an accurate description of the wine they’re tasting, especially by conveying the holistic properties such as elegance, intensity, or balance. On the other hand, metaphor expresses the remarkable experiences of a wine that wine importer Terry Theise calls “sublime”. “Some wines” he writes, “…are so haunting and stirring that they bypass our entire analytical faculty and fill us with image and feeling”. Read more »

A Litany of Images

by Olivia Zhu

I wrote a few months ago on May Swenson’s “Untitled,” a love poem filled with the rain of many, many beautiful images. “You have found my root you are the rain,” she says. Today, I found myself caught in a rainstorm, took shelter under a tree, but it came with such a different kind of a feeling that even though my mind went back to Swenson, it seems more fitting to go somewhere new.

Billy Collins’ “Litany” is another poem that’s similar in its saturated nature, where almost every line includes a new metaphor. However, Collins, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, takes a different tack in producing his list of comparisons for his lover. Unlike Jacques Crickillon, whose lines are cited briefly in the epigraph of “Litany,” Collins does not take himself so seriously, and a slightly mocking tone is present throughout his work—a tone that makes it a bit hard to take him seriously while reading the poem, to be perfectly honest. A video of him reading invites friendly laughter from the audience as well:

Even the title of the poem is irreverent: litany can refer to either types of religious prayers involving petitions or to a long and tedious listing of items. Either seems to fit, as Collins may very well be petitioning his lover with his plaintive and sometimes appeasing comparisons or demonstrating to the reader that a recitation of several metaphors in a row is an overused and ineffective poetic technique.

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The Prescriptivist’s Progress

by Ryan Ruby

PilgrimsprogressbookThis month, two minor controversies revived the specter of the “language wars” and reintroduced the literary internet to the distinction between prescriptivism and descriptivism. One began when Han Kang's novel The Vegetarian won the Man Booker Prize and readers took to their search engines en masse to look up the word “Kafkaesque,” which had been used by the book's publishers and reviewers to describe it. Remarking upon the trend, Merriam-Webster noted sourly: “some argue that ‘Kafkaesque' is so overused that it's begun to lose its meaning.” A few weeks before, Slate's Laura Miller had lodged a similar complaint about the abuse of the word “allegory.” “An entire literary tradition is being forgotten,” she warned, “because writers use the term allegory to mean, like, whatever they want.”

When it comes to semantics, prescriptivists insist that precise rules ought to govern linguistic usage. Without such rules there would be no criteria by which to judge whether a word was being used correctly or incorrectly, and thus no way to fix its meaning. Descriptivists, by contrast, argue that a quick glance at the history of any natural language will show that, whether we like it or not, words are vague and usage changes over time. The meaning of a word is whatever a community of language users understands it to mean at any given moment. In both of the above cases, Merriam-Webster and Miller were flying the flag of prescriptivism, protesting the kind of semantic drift that results from the indiscriminate, over-frequent usages of a word, a drift that has no doubt been exacerbated thanks to the internet itself, which has increased the recorded usages of words and accelerated their circulation.

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Lament of the Expunged Metaphor

You bastard! You butcher! You murdering swine!
I had it all: beauty, aptness, concision.
I fit snugly into that trimetric line.
And what's my reward? –A brutal excision.

Don't tell me they told you to “kill all your darlings.”
Bill Faulkner's not going to take this rap.
That's a defense used by Eichmanns and Gôrings:
“I just followed orders.” Don't give me that crap!

I could have been something—a catchphrase, a clichéd
Expression. Folk would have asked, “Who said it?”
You should have stuck by me. We would have made
Such a statement—and you'd have the credit.

I knew it was coming. I saw how you treated
That cute little simile in the first stanza.
It was she got you started; now, she's deleted.
The dreaded black line came through like a panzer.

And you smiled as you did it! I saw you smirking
As you penned her replacement. That's when I lost hope.
You'll axe us, no matter how well we're working,
The moment you're smitten with a pretty new trope.

Oh you're clever—like Bluebeard!—and so discrete.
The world never sees any trace of your crimes.
No bruises. No blood. Just a clean printed sheet
Of meticulous meter and neat little rhymes.

But not even your cunning will suffice
To save you from what I hope and trust is
To be your fate, the terrible price
Assessed by the gods of poetic justice–

One day, leafing through a rival's verse,
You'll see me, set in a beautiful line
Like a mounted gem. And then you'll curse
Your cruel folly, and cry, “But . . . . you're mine!”

And too late you'll discover my charms.
And you'll want me back. And I'll say, “Never!
Your darling lies in another's arms,
A thing of beauty lost forever.”

by Emrys Westacott