Friday, June 3, 2011

Book Review: I is an Other

"Whenever we describe anything abstract—ideas, feelings, thoughts, emotions, concepts—we instinctively resort to metaphor," writes James Geary in I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World. I came across Geary's book in my local public library and found it an easy read. Since then, I have found myself dissecting and categorizing metaphors—just as Geary does throughout his book. "We utter about one metaphor for every ten to twenty-five words," he notes early in the book, so it's no wonder that they keep on popping up everywhere.

The word metaphor, Geary explains, derives from two Greek roots: meta (over, across, or beyond) and phor (to carry). Metaphors allow us to carry ideas from one realm to another, and they do so beautifully and efficently. Geary spends the bulk of the book demonstrating the ubiquity and power of metaphors. Consider his analysis of the word shoulder:
You can give someone the cold shoulder or a shoulder to cry on. You can have a chip on your shoulder or be constantly looking over your shoulder. You can stand on the shoulders of giants, stand shoulder to shoulder with your friends, or stand head and shoulders above the rest. Wherever you turn, you can't help but rub shoulders with one of the word's multitude of metaphorical meanings.
Consider also his analysis of the ways in which we seek to understand finance through metaphor: 
Flick on the business news and you're in for a smorgasbord of financial metaphor. Gasp in horror as the bear market grips Wall Street with its hairy paws; then cheer as fearless investors claw back gains. Watch in amazement as the NASDAQ vaults to new heights; then cringe as it slips, stumbles, and drops like a stone. Wait anxiously to see if the market will shake off the jitters, slump into depression, or bounce back.
From literature to advertising, from comedy to tragedy, from science to art—metaphors make communication possible. In each of the book's fifteen chapters, Geary explores a different use of metaphor. His analyses pull from a range of disciplines—including linguistics, history, and psychology—and his writing is sharp. I highly recommend the book for anyone interested in taking a journey into the land of metaphor.

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