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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 3; Issue 5; September 2001

Ideas from the Corpora

Cats, conversations, and metaphor

Michael Rundell column

We have an elderly cat whose favourite food is Whiskas Senior. It is, so the package tells us, "made with highly digestible proteins… to keep her healthy in her golden years". I was intrigued by this: working out what is meant by "her golden years" poses no problem, but you won't find this usage covered in many dictionaries – and, perhaps more to the point, most of us would probably not feel the need to consult a dictionary in a case like this. But if we have not encountered "golden years" before, how do we know what it means?

Jeannette Littlemore's paper on metaphoric intelligence (in the March edition of HLT) gives a clue. As she shows, a grasp of metaphor often enables us to understand novel combinations like "golden years". A look at corpus data gives us some idea of how the word golden can combine. Some combinations are quite stable and occur regularly enough to be regarded as distinct lexical items. For example:

  • golden wedding/jubilee/anniversary (denoting a period of 50 years, but in contexts where this longevity is seen as a considerable and relatively rare achievement)

  • golden handshake/hello/goodbye/parachute (contractual wheezes for ensuring that overpaid top managers receive even more money, especially when they fail in their jobs)

  • golden age/era (a period of great achievement, great happiness, or both, with hints of nostalgia mixed in)

  • golden oldie (a well-loved person/record/movie etc: it has been around for a while, and this is part of its appeal)

We can already see some patterns emerging: there are connotations here of high value, success, happiness, and the passage of time. Rather than seeing each of these strands as a distinct "meaning" of golden, it is probably truer to say that golden has a collection of "meaning potentials" and that each of these can be contextually activated. Different combinations spark off different metaphors, so the precise reading of a given combination will depend on which of several underlying ideas is being foregrounded. To test this out, it is worth looking at more corpus examples. It turns out that, aside from the established cases mentioned above, most of the one-off combinations fall into three groupings:

(1) People:

    the golden boy of Irish politics/the insurance market the golden girl of tennis
    Paltrow and Pitt made a golden couple in a two-year romance
    a debutante and Daddy's girl with golden connections
    would she like seeing this golden college belle at her bedside?

(2) Periods of time

    the long golden days of peace
    it was a golden period in public service broadcasting
    he seemed to have a golden future with Manchester United and England
    violin recordings made during his golden youth as a prodigy
    inhabiting a golden time where they thought they were the first to discover booze and sex and staying up all night
    savouring this golden moment in history

(3) Unique skills or special achievements

    Soros appears to be losing his golden touch
    the golden-armed quarterback with a poise and maturity beyond his years
    there were five penalties and two drop goals from the golden boot of full back Simon Mason
    It was a tragic ending to what could have, undoubtedly would have, been a golden career
    the damage they are doing to the golden economic legacy they inherited from the last administration

The starting point, of course, is the "literal" meaning – or two literal meanings in the case of golden: made of gold (and therefore very valuable) or having the colour of gold, which seems to have entirely positive connotations: golden sandy beaches, beautiful golden hair, and so on. (No wonder McDonald's also likes to be known as "the golden arches".) From this, the various metaphorical strands develop. Interestingly, though, the data suggests that a given combination does not necessarily invoke the same metaphor every time it appears. Going back to "golden years", we find it has several possible readings:

(1) the standard of living most pensioners are seeking in their golden years through an annuity
(2) Few celebrities worked so hard to ensure that the proceeds from the golden years all ended up in her coffers.
(3) ..almost as extraordinary as the golden years of his youth

(1) is a clear reference to old age, though seen in a very positive light, perhaps as a time of happiness following years of achievement (this doesn't quite work in the case of my cat, however). Example (2) exploits the link with money and success, while example (3) seems to invoke the element of nostalgia that is also present in golden age.

As Jeanette Littlemore points out: "Metaphor is so pervasive in language that it would be impossible for a person to speak without using metaphor at some point, whether knowingly or not". The classic text on the subject is Lakoff and Johnson's Metaphors We Live By (Chicago University Press 1980), which effectively redefines what we mean by metaphor. Rather than being merely "a device of the poetic imagination", it is shown to be fundamental to the way we think and speak. In Lakoff and Johnson's view, "most of our ordinary conceptual system is metaphorical in nature".

Following their lead, we can see for example that conversations and discussions often invoke the metaphor of a journey, with the speakers going from one place to another. It is this idea that underlies all of the following expressions:

    I can't quite see where this argument is heading .
    It was a useful meeting – we covered a lot of ground .
    We eventually arrived at a conclusion.
    I feel you're on the wrong track here.
    We wandered off the topic.
    The conversation drifted rather aimlessly.
    We kept going round and round in circles.

If we then take a key word like conversation itself, it is immediately clear that numerous corpus lines illustrate the same metaphor in use – though additionally there is a notion of a conversation as being like a boat or other vehicle that can be "steered" in a particular direction:

usic while they ate and the conversation moved from the comple
ere devoted to bringing the conversation round to the topic of food
and a packet of Tunes.  The conversation then turned to the Center 
  village.  One evening the conversation turned to commando raids d
e middle trying to keep the conversation  going. So,  I chose 
d he was trying to lead the conversation away from her husband,  to
t she was able to steer the conversation in the direction that,  ho
erately,  Celia steered the conversation round to her and Brian 's 
ding worries,  steering the conversation around the reefs and sandb
her easily,  casually,  the conversation  drifting.  Jane had shown
urned with the drinks,  the conversation returned to the antics per
        From knitting,  the conversation  moved,  via dressmaking, 
ater the fun dried up.  The conversation started to take a vaguely 
e did not like the turn the conversation was taking. Two
lence,  wondering where the conversation was leading.  I 
ge Cagliaritano without the conversation drifting round to the camp

Metaphor offers new ways of helping us make sense of language. Many common metaphors appear to be almost universal, while others may be language- or culture-specific. Either way, learners of English can only benefit by gaining access to this underlying system. If we can help students to grasp these ideas, whether in the classroom or in reference books and teaching materials, we can equip them with a tool that will enable them to understand unfamiliar expressions and see the invisible strands linking them with others which draw on the same metaphorical source.

Michael Rundell (michael.rundell@dial.pipex.com) is a lexicographer, and has been using corpora since the early 1980s. As Managing Editor of Longman Dictionaries for ten years (1984-94) he edited the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (1987, 1995) and the Longman Language Activator (1993). He has been involved in the design and development of corpus materials of various types. He is now a freelance consultant, and (with the lexicographer Sue Atkins and computational linguist Adam Kilgarriff) runs the "Lexicography MasterClass", whose training activities include workshops in corpus lexicography at the University of Brighton (www.itri.brighton.ac.uk/lexicom). He is also Editor-in-Chief of the forthcoming Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners.

1 These examples come from a dictionary usage note written by my colleague Rosamund Moon, who has produced over forty similar notes on common metaphors for the new Macmillan English Dictionary (published January 2002)

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