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Language theory helps to define Donald Trump
Thursday, 04 May 2017 12:38
Special to the Daily Planet


This column is about language.  It shouldn’t be taken as criticism of President Trump. You’ll see, he appears onstage here only as an inconspicuous prop. 

If you hear someone say, “Donald Trump is a loose cannon,” your mind does not bring up the image of a ship’s deck with a heavy cannon rolling around with every wave, causing havoc. No, you immediately think, “Donald Trump is an unpredictable, uncontrolled person who is likely to cause damage everywhere he goes.” 

Because “loose cannon” no longer produces an image in the mind, but instead our mind goes straight to a non-figurative meaning, it’s known as a “dead” metaphor, or a cliche.

If, on the other hand, you hear, “Donald Trump is a carnival barker,” your mind does produce an image: a man urging people to come into his side show. That mental image means the metaphor is “live.” It’s not a cliche.  The speaker has created something new. You must solve the meaning of the metaphor before you can understand what the speaker is saying about Trump – how his flim-flam promises everything and in the end, delivers nothing.

In an episode of “Get Smart,” Max says, “Life is a kumquat.” The humor lay in the metaphor’s having no meaning. The kumquat metaphor wasn’t live or dead; it was nonsense.

But if we were to say, “Donald Trump is a kumquat,” the metaphor comes alive. Our minds bring up a round, orange thing the size of a stuffed olive.

That’s how metaphors work. A creative person replaces ordinary words with a seemingly unrelated image. Poets love to do this, like Alfred Noyes’ “the moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.” He could have said, “Clouds gathered under the moon,” but he chose an image.

The newly created metaphor is always live. Everybody who hears it must figure out its meaning. But if the metaphor catches on and comes to be used by more and more people, the metaphor dies. Gradually, it comes to belong to the language, like ordinary words, not with a mental image, like happened with “loose cannon.”

OK, now let’s see how you’ve mastered the metaphor. I’ll give you a few metaphors, and you tell me if they’re “live,” “dead,” or “meaningless.”

• “Donald Trump is a windbag.”  The metaphor has to be dead. Who knows what a windbag is, anyway? (It’s the bellows of an organ.) “Windbag” is part of the language without an image. It’s a dead metaphor, or cliche.

• “Donald Trump is a bottle rocket.” This one’s live. An image comes to mind of fireworks shooting up, making a lot of noise and exploding into littering debris. Such is his presidency.

• “Donald Trump is a star.” Yes, “star” is a dead metaphor in the celebrity sense.  It became an ordinary word long ago. But oh, in a Trump context, “star” hangs there begging for life! When stars lose their light, they become black holes that absorb all energy and light.

• “Donald Trump is a ponytail.” Let’s call this one “meaningless” and move on.

As a test, I gave several of my friends this metaphor: “Donald Trump is a coconut.”

Responses: the world’s biggest nut (this is true of the sea coconut); dangerous (also true – 150 people die annually from falling coconuts); a lot of husk for very little meat; tough exterior and soft, flaky inside. Two said the coconut metaphor had no meaning to them.

I saw a protester on TV holding a sign: “Donald Trump is a racial arsonist.” I scratched my head. The guy obviously intended his metaphor to be live or he wouldn’t have made the placard. Hmmm.

Language theory is fun, don’t you think? A regular barrel of monkeys but sometimes a can of worms.

Lee Ballard is a linguist whose Ibaloy dictionary-grammar received a 2012 National Book Award in the Philippines.  He lives in Mars Hill.



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