Date: Wed, 12 Nov 2003 13:20:15 -0600 From: Marcus Callies Subject: Thesaurus of Traditional English Metaphors
Wilkinson, P.R. (2003) Thesaurus of Traditional English Metaphors, 2nd ed., Routledge (1st ed. 1993).
Marcus Callies, Department of English, Philipps- Universität Marburg, Germany & University of Wisconsin- Madison, USA.
This "Thesaurus of Traditional English Metaphors" is a reference work with supposedly more than 20,000 entries, presenting a vast collection of a variety of figurative expressions of the English language. The book consists of a brief introduction (pp. xvii-xx), the main body of the text, i.e. the actual entries (pp. 1-603), a short bibliography (pp. 604-8), and two indices, an Index of Themes (pp. 609-18), and an Index of Keywords (pp. 619-870).
In the introduction, the author reminds us that "in everyday life, metaphors take many different forms" (p. xvii). This statement mirrors Wilkinson's use of the term 'metaphor': it is employed in a traditional and very wide sense, thereby including a variety of different figurative expressions which may be classified as idioms ("burn the candle at both ends"), proverbs ("carry coals to Newcastle"), slang expressions ("a pain in the arse"), similes ("as dark as a pit") or simply catch phrases ("Welcome to the club!"), individual words ("purgatory", "Blitz") and proper names ("Casanova"). Since "the main purpose of this collection is to trace the origins of folk metaphor in English" (p. xvii), one is led to say that, more precisely, the book is a collection of figurative expressions of the English language and - as acknowledged in the publisher's announcement - "provides an overview of folklore and folk wisdom as reflected in figurative expressions".
Given the variety of metaphorical expressions the English language exhibits, and the difficulty to decide where to draw a line, Wilkinson makes sure to tell us what is not included in this collection: "nearly all examples of metonymy, synecdoche and swearing have been omitted as being too marginal or personal". Also excluded are euphemisms, puns, rhymes (such as the well-known "skin-and-blister" for "sister" in Cockney rhyming slang), the names of natural species, and purely literary metaphors, "except for those which have become traditional by general acceptance, as have many Shakespearean sayings as well as titles and phrases from modern authors"(p. xvii).
The entries are arranged thematically under the categories from the traditional cherrystone rhyme "tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, richman, poorman, beggarman, thief", supplemented by three additional categories: "at home", "at school", and "at play". The individual entries presented in each of these eleven subject-categories are grouped into a set of thematic sections (fully listed only in the table of contents) which are intended to represent the originating metaphorical images of the entries. The subject-categories vary considerably in breadth, ranging from seven thematic sections per category (A "Tinker") to more than ninety (I "At home").
Section A "Tinker", which is incidentally the least extensive of the eleven categories and therefore used for exemplary purposes here, includes the thematic sections 1 "Wood work", 2 "Stone work", 3 "Metal work", 4 "Machinery, computers", 5 "Craft skills", 6 "Power", and 7 "Pedlars, tinkers and gypsies". These sections are in turn divided into more specific sub-sections, e.g. the thematic section 1 "Wood work" comprises the sub-sections a "Wood", b "Carpentry", c "Hammer and nails", d "Glue" and e "Woodworking tools and methods".
Individual entries are accessible via the two indices, most effectively by using the extensive Index of Keywords, especially since it lists most entries twice, e.g. the saying "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" is listed both under "fix" and "broke".
If one was to look up e.g. the meaning of the idiom "hair of the dog (that bit you)", listed in the keyword index under "hair, of the dog", one finds a reference letter and number indicating the entry's location within the main body of the text. In this case, the idiom is listed under section G.2d: "Beggarman, Hostile receptions, Hostile receptions with dogs".
The fact that each page has a header indicating the reference letter and number, as well as the keyword for the respective thematic subsection, makes it easy to locate the respective entry within the main text.
Wilkinson's collection clearly represents a philologist's lifetime work. The sheer wealth and the very broad range of the material presented is impressive. However, there are two major problems the user encounters, relating to the organization and accessibility, as well as the presentation of the entries.
The author's decision to organize his material around the rather odd eleven subject-categories mentioned above, obviously motivated by his focus on folk metaphor and folk wisdom, has some significant drawbacks. Obviously, the introduction of three supplemental categories to allow for items otherwise difficult to classify is indicative of the organizational problems.
To begin with, the author's choice of the set of thematic (sub- )sections to be listed with each of the subject-categories is largely determined by the assumed social characteristics of the personae in the cherrystone rhyme. To give an example, the category of animals, a field which is particularly rich in metaphorical expressions and thus could have been dealt with exhaustively in its own right, is split up to meet the specific folk-characteristics of the character-categories. Thus, animals such as lions, bears, apes and monkeys, spiders and insects, and reptiles are listed in category C "Soldier", fish is included in D "Sailor", farm animals are to be found in category E "Richman", whereas supposedly unpleasant species and parasites are listed under G "Beggarman".
In the introduction, the author recognizes that "metaphor is a means of expressing one thing in terms of something else" (p. xvii), and subsequently introduces the notions of "vehicle" and "tenor", in broad terms equivalent to the concepts of "source domain" and "target domain" in the cognitive approach to metaphor (Lakoff/Johnson 1980):"In 'Not a person you could creel eggs with' the vehicle is the idea of two people co-operating to fill a basket with eggs, and the tenor is the identification of someone as an unsuitable partner in such a delicate task" (p. xviii).
Although Wilkinson explains that "the metaphors in this book have been arranged by their vehicles or originating images into groups" (p. xviii) - i.e. the thematic categories are intended to capture the literal content of the figurative expression, not the metaphoric aspect - the application of this principle turns out to be rather difficult and is thus not consistently adhered to in practice.
Whereas the classification of some entries seems more or less transparent to the user, such as the listing of the similes "as dark as a pit" and "as black as coal" in section F.23a "Poorman, Miner", it very frequently leads to rather bizarre classifications, as in the case of the idiom "ride like a town bike", defined as "of a woman, have frequent and energetic sex" (p.573), which is listed in section K.45a "At play, Cycling". Another example is the well-known idiom "kick the bucket" which is listed in category E.29e "Richman, The butcher and various meats, Pork" because of its etymology, i.e. "slaughtered pigs are hung by the heels from the 'bucket' or beam" (p.189). Similarly, one finds the idioms "bury the hatchet" and "dig up the hatchet" not in section F.30b;c "Hatchets; Shafts and Axes" where most expressions featuring "hatchet" are found, but in section C.17a "Different countries and peoples", a thematic section which for the most part includes entries relating to (wild) animals.
In sum, the grouping of entries is to a significant extent opaque and counter-intuitive, and may even seem arbitrary to the non-specialist user, which is not unproblematic for a volume primarily intended to be a reference book. This means that the keyword index in particular is basically the only effective way to quickly find an entry. The complete listing of the eleven subject-categories and their thematic sections in the table of contents, as well as the tables preceding each subject- category which list the complete (sub-)sections, can only be used for browsing a particular section out of curiosity. The organization of the material along more transparent parameters, either by consistently grouping the material according to generic terms (e.g. all those expressions relating to animals or body parts), or by arranging entries under their metaphorical content, i.e. the "tenor", or "target domain", accompanied by the keyword index, would have been a more user-friendly alternative.
The second problem relates to the presentation and coverage of the material. The depth in which individual entries are presented varies to a great extent. Some are extensively discussed and documented in that the author provides date of first attestation, derivation, dialectal use and origin, etymology, and definition. Occasionally, a quotation illustrating the first attestation or the use of an entry is also given. Other entries are merely listed, without even being defined or glossed, which makes it virtually impossible to identify their meanings, especially for non-native speakers.
Moreover, Wilkinson does not give any sources or bibliographic references in the main text, which is a significant problem for researchers who may need further information on a specific entry. The only place where the author briefly acknowledges his sources is in the introduction, in which he rather unspecifically mentions "dictionaries and glossaries of dialect and folklore, collections of proverbs, similes, and slang" (p. xvii f.), as well as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as his major research tools. Most dates of first attestation are clearly taken from the OED, but this is neither explicitly mentioned in the introduction nor indicated in the entries themselves.
It is clear that an enterprise like this can per se never reach completion. However, given that "the intention has been to assemble those social or traditional metaphors that have become current in the English language, including those restricted to a dialect or district or to even smaller groups" (p. xviii), the criteria for the inclusion or absence of a particular item remain unclear. For example, the expression "the German's wit is in his fingers", which is not defined and which I don't know and cannot find in the OED, is included, but the rather common and frequent expressions "to go Dutch" or "Dutch treat" are not.
Despite these shortcomings, this book is a fascinating work and a great scholarly achievement. It is well worth browsing individual (sub-) sections, and there are interesting, surprising and often amusing discoveries to make. The book should find its place in many academic and reference libraries, and will be of interest for all those with an interest in cultural history, dialectology, folklore, English literature, language and linguistics.
Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson (1980), Metaphors We Live By.Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
OED (1994), The Oxford English Dictionary 2nd edition on Compact Disc. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Marcus Callies is a doctoral candidate in English Linguistics at Philipps-University Marburg, Germany and currently a Visiting Research Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research interests include Contrastive Linguistics (German-English), Second Language Acquisition (with a focus on discourse-functional aspects of learner language and interlanguage pragmatics) and cross-cultural metaphor.