Tag Archives: linguistics

A Tapestry of Metaphor


In this essay I speculate on a possible relationship between “word,” “writing,” “weaving,” and “work.” While the essay is speculative in its etymology, I think it does show a definite intertwining of the histories of metaphors that underpin the changes in meaning we see from Indo-European, Greek, and Latin, into English. Because of limited space, my investigation into the histories of these words is of need cursory. My intent here is to entertain and provoke the reader’s own imaginative speculations, not to create a definitive history or an airtight case. Continue reading

The Power of Naming

“Onomatopoeia / I don’t want to see ya / speakin’ in a foreign tongue,” John Prine once sang—or wheezed, depending on your taste in music. We do it all the time. We growl and mewl at our lovers, bark and howl at friends and strangers. At least we do in my neighborhood. But what is it, in any language, that we are doing when we say “arf arf” or “moo moo”? And if “onomatopoeia” simply means “to make a name like the thing itself” then why the heck does it sound like nothing English speakers ever say or hear? Continue reading


What does a debutante mean when she says, “Simply sublime, dahling”? And what does that have to do with subliminal messages? Why does “sublime” mean “elevated,” while “subliminal” implies “beneath”? “Sub” means “under, below, beneath, down” [AHD]. To “sub lime” should mean “to sit beneath the shade of a citrus tree.” That, of course, would be wrong—unless you’re a punster.

It turns out that sublime and subliminal both have to do with the “lintel,” Latin limen. The lintel is the beam that forms the upper part of a window or door, and supports part of the structure above it [AHD]. This lintel is thus a threshold; we get the word “limen” to mean the “threshold of a physiological or psychological response” [AHD]. “Sub” + “limen” gives us, in various forms, words that mean passing under, through, and over a metaphorical threshold. 1. Continue reading