A metaphor's only cause of death is
the acceptance of its poetic meaning into the normal vocabulary of the host
language. It is difficult to clearly distinguish the living metaphor from the
dead because a language is dynamic, and individualistic - and therefore never a
singularity even in the tightest-knit jargon circles. If one has never heard a
given word in a specific metaphorical context, they will more likely see it as a
living metaphor; where one who is familiar with this word in this same context
will not likely identify it as a metaphor at all.
This strong contrast
between each of our respective treatments of this same metaphor - one clearly as
living, the other clearly as dead - led me to recognize that our perspectives
had set the value, and not the definition of the word itself. This, in turn, led
to the following criteria for distinguishing living from dead
metaphors: only when one can no longer see evidence of life can a
metaphor be officially declared dead. But a metaphor - living or dead - is always
new and alive to someone hearing it for the first time. Thus this distinction
seems far more scholastic than practical. Furthermore, a metaphor
that is considered dead in one language or culture is not necessarily dead
in another. For example there is
much debate surrounding whether the metaphors of the Bible are living or dead,
with this distinction having a dramatic effect on the resultant interpretation
of its teachings.
The proper use of metaphor, whether
living or dead, keeps it as alive as the day it was born.
Here is an exercise that will help you explore
the difference between living and dead metaphor. It's taken from a list of five
questions submitted to me by a student, presumably seeking help with their
homework. Naturally, I wouldn't give him easy answers - instead, I echoed each
question with another question, aimed at bringing forth the very meaning of the
first from his perspective.
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