Constraints on Metaphorical Creativity

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Is metaphoric creativity unlimited or does it emerge from certain personal (including bodily) and cultural constraints? The study of metaphoric variation offers some challenges to prominent theories of creative metaphoric use. Consider the following examples of newspaper headlines used to talk about the outcome of sporting events, in this case, American college football games" "Cougars drown Beavers," "Cowboys corral Buffaloes," "Clemson cooks Rice," and "Army torpedoes Navy" (Kovecses, 2009). The nicknames of the college teams (e.g., 'Cougars' are the mascot for Washington State University, 'Beavers' are the mascot for Oregon State University, 'Buffaloes' the mascot for University of Colorado, etc.) are paired with verbs that metaphorically refer to defeat. Thus, beavers live in water and can be defeated when drowned, cowboys corral cattle, and therefore would defeat an opponent like buffaloes by corralling them, rice is considered 'done' or defeated when cooked, and a Navy ship is defeated when torpedoed. Clever headline writers take advantage of people's ability to know what literal actions can be metaphorically used to refer to the idea of defeating, and do so in humorous ways, inviting readers to chuckle at the puns.

These sports headlines illustrate how people's knowledge of, and personal experiences with, different concrete and abstract concepts is put to work in the process of creating new metaphorical ways of speaking. Creating new metaphors is shaped by two processes: people's differential experiences in the world, and people's differential access to certain cognitive processes. For example, people pay attention to their bodies differently depending on the physical environment and the social context. The immediate situation in which communicative action takes place is a more exact constraint that people take into account as they aim to be coherent in what they say. Consider the following newspaper headline from 'The Wall Street Journal Europe' (2003): "The Americanization of Japan's car industry shifts into higher gear." Why does this expression make sense and, again, seem particularly apt when talking about Japan's auto industry? The headline reflects the common conceptual metaphors that progress is motion forward, such that

Forget the idea of the budget ax chopping away at the deadwood of Sacramento (i.e., the State's capital where the Governor and legislature work and govern) - the next couple of weeks are going to be more like a raging forest fire, as programs and workers' wages go up in fiscal flames. ... State worker unions and the disabled were out in force Thursday, clogging the Capitol and lobbying lawmakers in the hopes of blocking Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger from striking the match.

in this context, we readily infer that Japan's car industry is making good progress, or is advancing. But we draw this inference from understanding the link between Japan's car industry and the idea that the forward movement of a car is accomplished through the shift into higher gears. Even though Japan's car industry is an abstract entity that physically cannot move forward, we can understand is a metaphorical object that can move, and when it does do so by shifting into higher gear, like the cars made by the industry, the expression seems coherent and apt.

The physical environment also shapes people's differential experience of their bodies and the world around them, and this too influences the creation of metaphors in talking about abstract ideas. For example, consider some metaphoric expressions used in talk about the economy like "healthy economy," "economic recovery," "sickly firm," "a financial injection," "arthritic economy," and so on. These expressions may arise from people's experiences of their bodies in particular environments in the form of the economy is health metaphor. One possibility is that people use more health metaphors in talking about the economy during times of the year when they were more likely to be ill, such as when experiencing common ailments of colds, the flue, pneumonia, and bronchitis. In fact, one 10-year analysis of 'The Economist' showed that the use of health metaphors in talking about the economy was far more evident during the winter months of December to March, which is when people most often experience illness, compared to any other time period. Once again, the physical setting in which talk occurs, and what is most salient to people's bodily experience in those contexts, shapes the selection of metaphorical source domains when creatively describing abstract target domains such as the economy.

Another aspect of bodily constraints on metaphoric creativity is seen as an examination of synesthetic metaphors. These poetic metaphors are especially vivid because they express cross-sensory mappings that are constrained by a cognitive principle whereby mappings go from lower sensory modes to higher ones (e.g., touch> taste>smell >sound> sight). One analysis of synesthetic metaphors showed several instances of these preferred patterns in the work of the Chinese writer Mo Yan. For example, the following expression demonstrates the synthestic transfer from touch (i.e., the source domain) to smell (i.e., the target domain): "The house was full of bubbling hot stench, like a dead chicken or duck being scaled by boiling water." This sentence conveys the idea of a horrible smell being something that is 'hot' to the touch. Another metaphor expresses a synesthetic mapping from touch to sound, "... the music was light and bright, exquisite and emotive, stroking people's faces, like a gentle breeze in warm and flowery March." The word 'music' referring to sound is understood in terms of an extended simile of a 'breeze' that can be felt, as if 'stroking faces.' A different sentence illustrates a touch to sight (color) synesthetic tranfer: "For a minute it was murky in the house and then a damp, light yellow sunlight squeezed itself inside through the crack of the door." This statement evokes an image of the 'light yellow sunlight' as something that can be felt as 'damp,' creating 'a mixed sensation amid the seemingly semantic conflict between' touch and color (Yu, 2007: 25). Finally, consider an instance of a sound to sight mapping: "The sound of the water coming from the river was getting brighter and brighter, as if it had shape as well as color, and not only audible, but also visible." In this case, we understand the sound in visual terms, something the writer explicitly notes, which is perhaps the most common type of synesthetic metaphor.

These examples of poetic metaphor beautifully articulate how systematic patterns of cross-sensory mappings have great aesthetic appeal, which is surely one of the important rhetorical functions of some metaphors, especially when seen in literary contexts. Moreover, this examination of synesthetic metaphors demonstrates how the vividness of some creative metaphors is not purely visual, static, or 'mental,' because many vivid metaphors involves knowledge from many modalities, as well as kinesthetic experiences more generally. Furthermore, this study of synesthetic metaphors shows how bodily experience, and the relative prominence of different sensory modalities in our experience, constrains the creation of specific literary metaphors.

This analysis of creative metaphors also suggests that many metaphors arise not from source-to-target domain parallelism, but from extensive, contextually-driven source domain inferences that are both local and personal. Consider the following excerpt from the Nick Hornsby novel 'High fidelity' (1995: 12).

I tried not to run down Phil too much - I felt bad enough as it was what with screwing his girlfriend and all. But it became unavoidable because when Jackie expressed doubts about him, I had to nurture those doubts as if they were tiny, sickly kittens, until eventually they became sturdy, healthy grievances with their own cat-flaps which allowed them to wander in and out of our conversation at will.

How do we understand the creative use of metaphor in this example, where 'grievances' were first conceived of as 'sickly kittens,' and soon became 'healthy' with their 'own cat-flaps'? Consider the case of 'cat-flaps,' which generally conveys the idea that the grievances about the boyfriend could freely enter the conversation as a kitten may enter and leave a house at will through the cat-flap. There does not seem to be a single source-to-target domain mapping between cat-flaps and the idea of freely talking about the boyfriend's problems. Instead, cat-flaps contribute to the further development of the source domain of grievances as kittens, or cat-like, and provides a richer scenario for thinking about the grievances as kittens, with their own free will.

Even if people initially attempt to establish clear source-to-target domain mappings for interpreting creative metaphors, people may fail to draw these inferences, and still extract additional information from the source domain (i.e., all things related to kittens and their behaviors) to create contex-tually relevant interpretations of the metaphors. But more importantly, the ubiquity of nonparallelism in metaphor, both conventional and novel, also suggests that understanding metaphoric language is not a matter of finding some independent meaning for each and every bit of target domain meaning. Whenever a metaphoric view of some topic is provided, as in the Hornsby passage, only some of the word choices may have direct relations to the target domain, with others acting to fill out, often in creative ways, our understanding of the source domain.

Context opportunistically selects which aspect of a source-domain scenario ends up being mapped or transferred to the target domain, and thereby when metaphorical sentence or parts of sentences end up with target-domain meanings of their own, leaving other related metaphorical chunks merely to contribute toward building the source scenario. (Barnden, 2009: 92-93)

Much of the creativity in metaphoric language arises from turning familiar, established metaphoric ideas and expressions and twisting them to create something new, but with an echo to the past. For example, the metaphorical proverb "Different strokes for different folks" originated in the 1950s reflects the cultural ideal of people's need for mutual acceptance. Creative forms of this proverb over the years include "Different spokes for different folks" (from a book on bicycles), "Different smokes for different folks" (from a cartoon showing a picture of a businessman smoking a cigar and a hippie smoking a marijuana cigarette), "Different slopes for different folks" (from an Air Canada ad promoting ski vacations in Canada), and "Different Volks for different folks" (from a Volkswagon ad highlighting that it sells cars other than the Beetle). In each case, people appear to recognize the allusion to the original proverb, and find humor in the slight twist on that old piece of wisdom so blatantly being used for entertainment, commercial purposes.

Literary authors have also created novel versions of familiar proverbs to represent unusual (e.g., ironic, satirical, absurdist) perspectives on life's enduring themes. Consider the following examples for the literary text 'Proverbs from Purgatory' (Schwartz, 2002; itself an allusion to Blake's 'Proverbs from Hell'):

These twisted proverbs blend together parts of familiar metaphorical expressions to creatively convey new insights on old 'pearls of wisdom.' Each phrase expresses a satirical view, or the dark side, of common metaphorical themes that play such an important role in shaping people's beliefs and actions. Thus, "A stitch in time is only skin deep" provides a rather profound alternative view of the worthy reminder that "A stitch in time saves nine" (i.e., even our most conservative actions taken to protect us from future harm may not guarantee that we always remain safe).

One important proposal suggests a metaphor, and all other forms of figurative language, may be 'optimally innovative' or optimally creative if it provokes a novel response, that:

For example, the phrase "a peace of paper," referring to a peace proposal, is seen as more being optimally innovative because it automatically generates a salient meaning (i.e., 'a piece of paper') that can be compared in some accessible manner to the novel meaning (e.g., both 'peace' and 'piece' are pronounced the same). Studies show that people find phrases like "a peace of paper" more pleasurable than familiar phrases (e.g., "a piece of paper"), variant phrases (e.g., "a single piece of paper"), and pure innovations (e.g., "a pill of pepper"). Similarly, novel metaphors (e.g., "a geometrical abstract painting" referring to one's eyes), whose intended meanings differed significantly from their salient interpretations, are more pleasing than literal interpretations of these phrases, while novel metaphors are more pleasing than more familiar metaphors (e.g., "big eyes" referring to having a big appetite). In the end, highly novel and creative language will be less attractive, and less appreciated, than are optimally innovative metaphors that are creative extensions which allow for the recovery of the familiar.

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