Inference: Figurative Language
Mervin runs like a duck.The comparison is, of course, only suggestive. Mervin doesn't really run like a water bird. Here again, we must not talk only of what the remark says (Mervin runs with a waddle.), we must recognize what the remark does (It compares Mervin's running to that of a duck.) and from that infer what the remark means (Mervin is awkward.)
When, in Shakespeare'sRomeo and Juliet, Merrcutio says
A plague o'both your houses,...we know he is not wishing termites on certain dwellings, but cursing two families. In the commentary on Dennis Rodman [Cf.Inference: Association and Reference] , the final comment is a use of figurative language.
With Rodman around, Jordan has become more of a deity than ever.Michael Jordan has obviously not become an actual God, merely an object of admiration and inspiration.
We read remarks such as these for the essence of the thought rather than for literal meaning. We interpret an unspoken, and yet, we feel, implied meaning.
How do we know statements are meant to be read figuratively? Quite simply: because the literal meaning does not make sense and another meaning does. When the literal meaning doesn't make sense, we try alternative understandings.
Figurative meaning is not always obvious, as with the simile
Time is like a river.
or the metaphor
Life is a game.We find meaning by using imagination, reason, and trial and error. In the case of
Time is like a river.The meaning may be that both life and a river go on endlessly, or that time follows a definite but wandering path. We look for some common element. The metaphor
Life is a game.might be suggesting that in life there are winners and losers, or that rules must be followed. We must turn to the larger context to be sure.
Martin Luther King was a master of figurative language. Notice how easily your mind shifts between literal and figurative meanings.
In those days the Church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.
Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.
Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.Figurative language can shape perception. The metaphors of "surfing the Web" or "cruising the electronic highway" imply different mental images, and with that different understandings of the Internet: whether as a natural phenomenon to be experienced vicariously or a man-made network to be traveled with a purpose. (The topic is being investigated by an Internet metaphor study, http://www2.umdnj.edu/~ratzan/imeta4.html.]
New denotations for words can evolve from figurative use of words. Consider
the computer mouse—a cursor device that scurries around like the rodent.
Computer users are the only ones to wallpaper windows—that is, install a
background image (wallpaper) on a portion of a computer screen (window).
extend far beyond dictionary definitions, …every word is surrounded by a halo of connotations and associations that radiate far beyond their literal meanings. And since all words carry meanings and suggestions in one culture that don't necessarily have an exact counterpart in another, it is inevitable that translators will end up with colors, tones, and meanings that don't exist in the original.Translations, and Biblical translations in particular, are often subject to great debate. Everyone knows the Sixth Commandment:Thou shalt not kill.The commandment has been invoked to argue against murder, abortion, mercy killing, ethnic cleansing, religious persecution, and assisted suicide, bearing arms in time of war, homicide in self defense, and the criminal death penalty. The original Hebrew term for "kill", however, actually means "murder." The command should read:Thou shalt do no murder.
Which of the above would be excluded by this translation?
Readers need not identify whether a meaning is a matter of denotation and
connotation. It is enough to be sensitive to both what words mean (denote) and
to what words imply (connote).
Similarly, readers do not have to identify the specific form of figurative
language—whether you are dealing with a simile, metaphor, or any other form of
figurative language. They must, however, see that the text does use figurative
language and infer an appropriate meaning behind the words.
Figurative language is more picturesque. It enables writers to indicate layers of meaning. Figurative language ups the reader's interest and often conveys meaning hard to convey in words.
Inference: Reading and Writing Ideas as Well as Words
Inference: The Process
Inference: Inference Equations
Inference: Association and Reference
Inference: Figurative Language