Steven Pemberton : Views and Feelings

October 1995

Metaphorically Speaking

Dutch is only the second closest living language to English (the closest is Frisian), and yet there are whole phrases that are identical or nearly identical in Dutch and English. For instance "Water is warm" means essentially the same in both languages (although "warm" is slightly warmer in Dutch than in English); "Winter school was open in December" (I'm scraping the barrel here, you understand, because I can't use articles like "the" and "an" which have diverged, and in a lot of cases even though the word is the same, the spellings are different. For instance, they spell here as hier, and since as sinds. Anyway, the languages aren't thatclose. For instance "I suppose so" is "Ik neem aan van wel").

Fifteen hundred-odd years ago (give or take a couple of centuries) my great great great (and about another 80 greats) ... grandparents and those of my Dutch colleague in the next room spoke the same language. But then my great80 grandparents went off marauding (which was the closest you could get to being a tourist in those days), while his anchored their boat in the middle of a sea and said "Here we are going to build our farm" – although using other words, you understand (except for here). How do two families who once spoke the same language end up speaking such different languages? The answer is "one day at a time". People often wonder why Latin died out, but in fact it didn't. If you had been in Rome every day since Julius Caesar's time until now, at no time would people have thought that they spoke a different language than the day before. Latin is still alive, we just call it Italian.

But words change their meaning, usually little by little. King James II once described the then-new St.Paul's Cathedral in London as "amusing", "awful" and "artificial" by which he meant that it pleased him, was awe-inspiring and made with great artifice: in other words, he liked it.

Many words get their new meanings by misuse. I suppose everyone has their favourite words where they cringe when they hear them misused. I have to cringe and laugh at the same time when I'm in a plane and hear the pilot announce that we will be taking off "momentarily". A short flight indeed! But presumably when enough people start using a word "incorrectly" we have to accept the new meaning as correct. "Decimate" really means "to reduce by one-tenth" and not "to reduce to one-tenth". "Parboil" really means "to boil thoroughly" and not "to part boil", but few will understand you if you try to use the 'real' meanings. To drive home my point, here is a 16th Century grammarian: "Those who say "chicken" in the singular, and "chickens" in the plural are completely wrong".

However, that doesn't give us the licence to go ahead and misuse any word we please. We have a perfectly good word "shortly" to describe what the pilot wants to say with "momentarily" not to need to replace it.

Another word that I have difficulty with is our use of "Metaphor" in such phrases as "the desktop metaphor". What is a metaphor? A figure of speech where something is referred to as being something which it only resembles. A computer system or screen is not a figure of speech, (nor for that matter does a system that uses the desktop metaphor resemble any desktop I've ever seen; my waste bin is on the floor, and so is my filing cabinet, and well, to be honest, so are many of my papers...).

When you look up "metaphor" in user-interface books, they often say something like "an analogy where...", in other words they use the correct word to describe the incorrect one. An analogy is a correspondence between things otherwise different.

So our "desktop metaphor" is actually more of an "office analogy". Is it too late to change? I suppose so. I mean, Ik neem aan van wel.

Luke and Ophelia

First published in the SIGCHI Bulletin, October 1995

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