Friday 11 September 2009

Reversed Referents

Keith Oatley's post last week on the embodiment of metaphor started an interesting discussion about metaphors -- and hopefully Rebecca and Keith will fill us in more on the brain research of Rachel Giora and colleagues on this topic. This line of thought has had me noticing the kinds of reversed referents I mentioned in my comments -- and I'll continue that reflection here (albeit in a very non brain science sort of way).

Whether or not we understand how they work (still an interesting question, for example, whether or how we're responding to the salience, inter-connectedness, or network of semantic relations in references), we use metaphors to do particular things. What metaphors do, or indeed what any references do (picking up on Giora's comment that metaphor might not be special), may end up being more forceful than the image invoked in the first place (either intentionally by the referrer, or initially evinced from the hearer) -- particularly if there is a space for reflection about the quality of the reference, and perhaps even about its relationship with the thing to which it refers: the referent.

The example that keeps coming to mind as I mull this over is the pejorative designation "chintzy." This textile references illustrates the way that a reference and its referent may end up in a complicated and out-of-step dance. Arguably (in my experience with textile buffs, at least), "chintzy" is often used as a disdainful designation of quality in a garment. "Oh, that's chintzy" dismisses the possibility that you might want a particular textile, for example -- or it might undermine the taste of the wearer. As a textile buff myself, what I find fascinating about the transformation of this reference is not so much its loss of status (Indian chintz was once so rare, desirable, and wildly competitive that its import was banned in both Britain and France) as the drastic shift in what it designates: although many people understand that technically chintz is a printed calico, many of those same people most commonly use the word to describe cheap, shiny polyester type construction (generally even without the characteristic chintz flowers or patterns -- and consequently, perhaps, without what was once the standard pejorative usage of the term to mean "gaudy," not "poor quality").

Other examples of this many-stepped slippage in meaning can be found (in environmental literature, for example, where I'm looking for further themes, for example involving the House of Green Gables, about which I will post in upcoming weeks.) I am particularly interested in cases in which original referents might end up actually changing to reflect their changing usage -- for example, if chintz were to, in fact, come to refer to shiny cheap polyester through its de facto associative chain.

It seems possible that what's happening in the space of reflection here, as I consider the play within this reference, is the building of a stronger and richer network of association. I raise a line of open questions before leaving you with the reference to today's illustration -- to a book that I must confess I have chosen because of its salience both to chintz and referents but that I have not read, although it looks fascinating, and, in its blurb, "promises to end the fruitless oscillation between Millian and descriptivist views [of the relation between names and their referents]."

What kinds of differences might we find between two different references (metaphorical or otherwise) with nominally equivalent richness: one in which the rich detail and interconnection is known (as I now know more about the history of chintz) or imagined (as the details of the history of chintz still are for me)? The degree to which it seems difficult to imagine how those two scenarios might be measured (as different) points to the difference between apprehending these two scenarios in the beholder. (As it must be, to some degree, because when could the edge between the known and imagined be measured, except for by some assessment of inventiveness around the edges of the known.) In other words, how much is the open play of metaphor a quality that differs not only in the text but in the reception? And this itself could involve both qualities of the receiver and of the reception experience itself, for example, whether enough time or prompting allowed the sort of rumination over chintz that I've just had.

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