Metaphor, synecdoche and language change

Nov 3, 2011 by

In the previous posting, I discussed various figures of speech, such as metaphor, metonymy and synecdoche, which make our everyday speech more colorful, more creative, more poetic even. However, the same figures of speech are also responsible for many instances of historical semantic change, that is cases when words change their meaning. Let’s consider a few of them here.

First, let’s consider metaphor-based meaning change. One example of this is the origin of the toponym Sierra Nevada. The Spanish term Sierra comes from the Latin word serra meaning ‘saw’; an English cognate is serrated (as in serrated knife). The jagged look of these mountains helps explain the analogy with a saw. Hence, Sierra Nevada is literally ‘Snowy Sawtooth’:

Another example of creative metaphorical meaning extention is the word focus. While now this word can mean ‘center of activity or interest’ (this sense is first recorded in 1796), it goes back to the Latin word focum meaning ‘hearth’ (Modern Romance languages derive their words for ‘fire’ from this Latin source: e.g. Italian fuoco, Spanish fuego, French feu). It was the German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler who in 1604 came up with a new, metaphorical meaning for this word, now recruited to refer to ‘a burning point, at which the rays of a lens or mirror converge’. The word was introduced into English by Thomas Hobbes in 1650s. (Note that the modern meaning derives by a further concrete-to-abstract meaning extention.)

Or consider the English word fool (and the French fou/folle ‘masculine/feminine fool’). It too derives from a Latin source, specifically from the word follem meaning ‘a leather sack filled with air; bellows’ (it could also refer to a balloon; the English ball as well as follicle are related). The modern meaning of ‘a person with little or no judgment, common sense, wisdom, etc.; a simpleton’ comes from a metaphorical meaning extention from ‘a sack filled with air’ to ‘a person full of air, an air-head’. You might be surprised to find out that this metaphorical meaning is attested already in Vulgar Latin in the 5th century CE, in writings of Augustine and Jerome. Curiously, speakers of Sanskrit made the same metaphorical extention: their vatula- literally meaning ‘windy, inflated with wind’ also means ‘insane’. (Consider also the Russian expression veter v golove, literally ‘wind in the head’, describing someone carefree and foolish.) And speaking of fool, a really cool insult turns up in a 1549 translation of Erasmus: foolosopher.

Let’s now turn our attention to synecdoche. As you’ll recall from the previous posting, syncecdoche is a a figure of speech by which a more inclusive term is used for a less inclusive one, or vice versa. For instance, when you speak of buying new wheels or request all hands on deck, you rely on synecdoche. Evaluating the size of a herd by heads (a hundred head of cattle) or of fleet by sails (a fleet of twenty sail) is based on synecdoche too.

Many instances of historical meaning change likewise involve synecdoche. Take, for example, the Latin word testam, which originally meant ‘shell, ceramic pot’. By metaphoric extention, this word acquired an additional meaning of ‘cranium’ (cf. also the Russian cherepok ‘a pottery shard’ and its metaphorical use for ‘cranium’). Already in Vulgar Latin of the 4th century CE, a part-to-whole synecdochy extended the meaning from ‘cranium’ to ‘head’ (the Classical Latin word for ‘head’ was caput). Modern Romance languages inherited the word testa with the new meaning: e.g. Italian testa, French tête. (Note, by the way, the circumflex accent on e in the French tête — it is a souvenir of the deleted [s], also in hôpital from the Latin hospitāle, château from the Latin castrum and île from the Latin insula.)

Other example of part-to-whole meaning extention include the Italian spada, Spanish espada and French épée all meaning ‘sword’ and deriving from the Vulgar Latin spatam meaning ‘a broad blade’; as well as the Italian tavola, French and English table, which derive from the Latin tabulam meaning ‘board, plank of wood’.

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