Beating the Drum for Metaphor
January 30, 2013


An engaging recent New Yorker article* describes the constructed language Ithkuil, which aims to be “maximally precise” by “eliminating the ambiguity, vagueness, illogic, redundancy, polysemy (multiple meanings) and overall arbitrariness that [are] seemingly ubiquitous in natural human language.”

Our first response was that the creator of this constructed language had likely not seen our recent blog post about connotation vs. denotation in brand names. The post notes that connotation is often more important than denotation in brand names. An example is gazelle. For the many who have never actually seen one of these animals, the literal meaning may be a bit blurry, yet to them the gazelle is still likely to connote swiftness and grace.

Our second reaction to Ithkuil was to ask why, as its creator noted, overall arbitrariness is so widespread in human language. The answer’s pretty easy if we picture what occurs in ordinary conversation: as communicators, we incline more toward verbal artistry than toward explicit programming. We launch plans as if they were rockets, face problems as if they were adversaries, and target opportunities as if--well, no need to flog a metaphorical horse.

Consider what language would be like without metaphor. Rather than launching plans, we’d simply make them, or start them. Metaphor is so intrinsic to the way we use words, it’s even difficult to find literal verbs to substitute for face in “face problems” or target in “target opportunities.” It’s much easier to find other metaphors: attack problems, meet problems head on, embrace change, aim for opportunities

That gives good reason to suppose that even if a precise language--be it Ithkuil or C++--should ever be spoken, it wouldn’t take a day for a ninja band of metaphors to start creeping in.

No wonder, then, that metaphor should be a staple of brand names. Metaphor helps us to see something new in everyday objects. It enables brands like Tide, BlackBerry, and Volt to stand out from the competition by endowing them with a unique, attractive message.

Metaphors do lose their force over time. Our verb reveal goes back to a Latin verb meaning ‘pull back the veil,’ yet that image no longer pops up when we encounter the word. Metaphor weakening explains how we get unwitting blends of metaphor like:

Over all, many experts conclude, advanced climate research in the United States is fragmented among an alphabet soup of agencies, strained by inadequate computing power and starved for the basic measurements of real-world conditions that are needed to improve simulations.

New York Times, June 11, 2001

The images in brand names subside over time as well. While the newcomer Volt immediately brings to mind an electric charge, the BlackBerry, introduced in 1999, now offers models--the Porsche and the Pearl--in colors other than black. Tide, introduced in 1946, hardly conjures the image of waves in the sea anymore.

But in branding, that’s OK, because a brand name’s heaviest lifting happens up front, when the name is new. A colorful name attracts attention, ties a unique message to a product, and is more likely to spread virally (if you’ll pardon the metaphor) when it’s first introduced.

Therefore, for those – like the inventor of Ithkuil – that wish to make language more efficient, we recommend metaphor, which in a single word can turn a caterpillar into a butterfly.

—Will Leben, Chair of Linguistics

* Joshua Foer, “Utopian for Beginners: An Amateur Linguist Loses Control of the Language He Invented.” The New Yorker, December 24 & 31, 2012.