On this date in 1890, the English writer Samuel Butler (1835-1902) presented a lecture in London entitled “Thought and Language.” Butler was a novelist, a satirist, and a translator. In 1898 and 1900 respectively, he translated both the Iliad and the Odyssey from the original Greek into English prose.
In his 1890 lecture, Butler addressed age-old questions about the evolution of human language and whether or not language and reason are exclusive to the human species, as opposed to other animals. In the course of his discussion of language, he presented a metaphorical definition of the word definition, presenting the reader with a fascinating figurative image:
Definitions . . . are like steps cut in a steep slope of ice, or shells thrown onto a greasy pavement; they give us foothold, and enable us to advance, but when we are at our journey’s end we want them no longer (2).
Another poetic definition – again of the word definition – is found in Butler’s Note-Books, which were published posthumously in 1912:
A definition is the enclosing a wilderness of ideas within a wall of words.
Butler’s poetic definitions remind us of the power of figurative language to help us to understand new ideas based on comparisons to old, familiar things, as well as its power to help us to see old ideas in new ways based on fresh comparisons. Certainly, the literal, textbook definitions of words are helpful, allowing us to grasp new ideas in objective black and white. But metaphor, simile, analogy, and personification provide such powerful subjective imagery that it is as if a spotlight is shining down, illuminating ideas so that they stand out in vivid color.
Today’s Challenge: A Lexicographer Walked Into a Bard
What are some aspects of language that might be defined using figurative language, such as words, language, speech, writing, reading, dictionaries, the alphabet, specific parts of speech, grammar, syntax, etc? Read the poetic definitions below, noticing how each writer uses different types of figurative language to define different aspects of language. Then, craft your own poetic definition using metaphor, simile, analogy, or personification.
Language is the amber in which a thousand precious and subtle thoughts have been safely embedded and preserved. -Richard Chenevix Trench
The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry. -Ralph Waldo Emerson
Language is a city to the building of which every human being brought a stone. -Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ideas are enclosed and almost bound in words like precious stones in a ring. -Giacomo Leopardi
Speech is the messenger of the heart. -Hebrew Proverb
Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap out tunes that can make bears dance, when we would move the stars. -Gustave Flaubert
Geometry is to sculpture what grammar is to the art of the writer. -Guillaume Apollinaire
The adjective is the banana peel of the parts of speech. -Clifton Fadiman
Dictionaries are like watches: the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true. -Samuel Johnson
Writing enables us to find out what we know — and what we don’t know — about whatever we’re trying to learn. Putting an idea into written words is like defrosting the windshield: the idea, so vague out there in the murk, slowly begins to gather itself into shape. –William Zinsser (3)
(Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)
Quotation of the Day: Life is like music, it must be composed by ear, feeling and instinct, not by rule. -Samuel Butler
3- Crystal, David and Hilary Crystal: Words on Words: Quotations About Language and Languages.