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Review of  Thesaurus of Traditional English Metaphors

Reviewer: Marcus Callies
Book Title: Thesaurus of Traditional English Metaphors
Book Author: P.R. Wilkinson
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Ling & Literature
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 14.3106

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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

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

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

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.

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.