Saturday, October 8, 2011

Literally: No Really, I Mean Literally

It's October and the leaves are turning. Friday I was driving to a morning meeting in town, enjoying the vistas in front of me: golden poplar and birches intertwined with dark green spruce, balsam, and pine. The moose maple and low-lying brush have gone orange and red this year. Beyond the trees lay the lake, glinting silver blue in the mid-morning sun, and beyond that, the Sibley peninsula, Isle Royale, and Pie Island in their various shades of purple.

I came to the top of a rise and gasped audibly. The view took my breath away. Literally: a breathtaking view.

Over the years, other images used figuratively have shown me their literal roots.

One summer Saturday, the our end of the bay developed huge rolling waves, coming from town. It had been a calm morning -- the kind of morning, in fact, that my grandfather and then my mother used to warn about. The kind of morning that encouraged people to go out fishing, perhaps too far from shore to be safe. Sure enough, one of the guys out fishing didn't head back toward town soon enough. His boat and motor were too small for him to navigate the surf. So he came ashore on our beach, even though we had no dock and the rocky bottom scraped at his hull. Our beach was protected and available, and..."any port in a storm," as they say.

My sister used to go sailing with a guy named Mac. One trip was a several-day cruise through the islands off the BC coast. One evening, Mac was frowning over a chart on the table. "I can't fathom it," he said. He didn't mean that he couldn't figure out how the chart worked, or how on earth the small crew had arrived wherever they were. He meant that he couldn't work out how many fathoms of water they were in -- how deep was it, how safe they were from running aground.

On thinking about it, I can imagine other times when I must have seen the figurative in its literal sense.

"That's the way the ball bounces" -- with all the sports I've watched, surely I have seen someone suffer disappointment from a wayward basketball. I know I have been personally disappointed at crumbled cookies. (Peanut butter cookies are particularly prone to inopportune crumbling, in my experience.)

Other expressions remain figurative. I haven't hoed in a long time, if ever, so I don't know firsthand the toughness of any particular row. I've never literally thrown good money after bad, though I do understand what it means, having invested in relationships that were (to others) obviously past their sell-by date.

And that's another metaphor I have experienced in its literal sense, though I wonder what the sell-by date on yogurt really means -- isn't it already growing stuff?

It's also fun to collect mixed or mis-used metaphors. During Thursday night's coverage of the provincial election, one of Global TV's pundits said "that's throwing a monkey at the wrench" -- TWICE. Okay, it was live TV. But still.

One error grammar gurus enjoy wailing about is the mis-use of "literal" to mean "figurative." I'm sure I've done it, though I do try not to. But I also know that experiencing metaphors in their literal sense helps make me more aware of them, and perhaps less likely to err in the future.

Meanwhile, it's just plain fun.