Friday, April 12, 2013

The birth of a metaphor

A Twitter exchange with Ben Zimmer over the metaphorical use of the phrase "pause button" in the new TV show The Americans (set in 1981) led me to think about how metaphors begin their lives. I didn't watch the episode in question, but apparently several viewers noticed that the show used the phrase "pause button" metaphorically to mean something like to put a romantic relationship on hold.

Ben tweeted this fact as a likely anachronism, presumably because the technology of pause buttons was too young in 1981 to have likely jumped to metaphorical use by then. I was not the only one who immediately took to Google Ngrams to start testing this hypothesis. In the end, Tweeter @Manganpaper found a good example from 1981 from some kind of self-help book.

But what interests me is an example I found from 1987:
Consumers have pushed the "pause" button on sales of video-cassette recorders, for years in the fast-forward mode.
Ben reluctantly conceded the example:

I'd have to review my historical linguistics books, but I don't think words necessarily shift their meanings radically all at once. I believe they can take on characteristics of associated meanings slowly, thus widening or narrowing their meaning as their linguistic environment unfolds. Eventually, a word can come to mean something quite radically different than it originally meant. I see no reason that the life of a metaphor could not follow a similar trajectory. Ben objected to the fact that the 1987 use of "pause button" I linked to was semantically linked to the literal use of actual pause buttons because it dealt with the conceptual space of VCR sales. But my hunch is that this is how many metaphors start their lives, making small conceptual leaps, not big ones. I could be wrong though. The sad truth is that finding good empirical data for the life span of metaphors is extremely difficult. The fact is that even with the awe inspiring large natural language data sets currently available in many languages, studying a linguistically high level data type like metaphor remains out of reach of most NLP techniques.

But this is why our NLP blood boils. There are miles to go before we sleep...


Jim Mischler, Northwestern State University of Louisiana said...

I agree that the development of a metaphor is often incremental, especially those that are in active use over many years. I study metaphor diachronically, and I have noticed this developmental arc, as well. I gather data in compiled corpora and conduct analyses in a "mixed methods" approach, employing selected statistical measures across the dataset and discourse analysis of individual examples. NLP researchers could team up with discourse analysts to study the life of a metaphor in this way.

Dominik Lukeš said...

This view of metaphor strikes me as bit too lexically teleological. Years ago I developed a little ad hoc classification of metaphor which I've now shared on

According to this, this would be a conceptual, innovative, local and highly salient use of metaphor, whereas the one Zimmer mentions while also conceptual (with hints of attributivity) has low salience and seems to be used more declaratively.

I don't think we can necessarily posit some directional development although some metaphors do become conventionalized they can always be recovered or their conceptual structure can be drawn upon implicitly. So the question is really about the process of lexicalization - and here metaphor is just like any other neologism.

Faldone said...

The literal pause button was available on reel-to-reel tape decks long before 1981.

Laura said...

Wow. Reading these posts has me wishing I was a Linguist! As a Speech-Language Pathologist, I get to dabble in it, but it's never enough to satisfy my curiosity. Yes, I was the "crazy" one in grad school who pick the professor's brain in Linguistics and Phonology while everyone else was bolting out of class! Forget the "pause button" where's the "rewind"?

Thomas Hanke said...

Interesting to consider which concepts are more or less recent, typing on my wireless touch screen ...

Not really in-depth data - well depending on your perspective on language change and L1 acquisition, still not the right L1 ;)
Back around that time - I was born 78 - there were some other pause buttons around, in my world at least on cassette players. They needed quite some push come to think of it. Or isn't "button" used for this kind of key/lever?

Well, that won't work if the metaphor is supposed to develop from actually seeing the paused thing. But I'd guess that depends on the type of video device as well.

Chris said...

Thanks for the comments folks, unfortunately I didn't receiv notice these were posted, so I only just got around to approving them. Something's amiss with Blogger, methinks.