Why do languages have metaphors and similes?

Patrick Hanks

Brandies University

Le 10 mars 2006 à 11 h 30

Salle C-9019, Pavillon Lionel-Groulx

Much research has been devoted to metaphors, but comparatively little to similes, which are often assumed to be merely second-class metaphors. In this talk, I make a start on redressing the balance by presenting a corpus analysis of the preposition like.
1. One use of like is to invoke a set by mentioning one or some of its typical members, e.g. people like lawyers and accountants, a cynical American politician like Richard Nixon. These are inclusive uses, not similes or comparisons (e.g. Richard Nixon is a member of the set of cynical American politicians). In such cases, the preposition is governed by a noun denoting a set of entities defined by a salient attribute, whether or not the attribute is mentioned explicitly.
2. By contrast, the simile a face like a reflection in a spoon is an exclusive use: the face in question is not a member of the set of reflections in spoons. When like is governed by a verb or event noun, it is generally exclusive and a simile.
3. like is often governed by a verb (in contrast to linguistic metaphors, where the primary subject is more often a noun). The verbs that govern like are very often verbs of perception (look like, sound like, taste like, smell like). Even verbs that denote behaviour generally report the perception of behaviour when they govern like (e.g. He was acting like a fool). The particular problems of feel like will be discussed.
4. There are conventional similes. For example, people are conventionally compared to a princess, a queen, a prisoner, an animal, a demented [N], a queen, a princess, a prisoner. Events and situations are often compared to unreal things, e.g. a banshee, a dream, a nightmare, a miracle, a fairy tale. Such similes work by invoking salient conventional semantic properties of princesses, prisoners, banshees, etc., not by an "experiential gestalt". Unlike metaphors, similes are often remarkably creative, often referring to something that no one has ever experienced, and in some cases to something that could not possibly exist.
5. In similes, selectional preferences are often violated. The proposition like is liberating. This often involves an unusual coupling of adjective and noun, as in (1) a moon like a silver pumpkin; (2) the idea of God pursing a whole family like a demented genealogist; (3) a single woman in their midst acts like a demented lighthouse, enticing hapless travellers, by its safe and steady beam, on to the rocks below.

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