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Explore This Map of 13 Centuries’ Worth of English Metaphors

How long ago did English speakers start linking chickens with fearfulness?

(David Jakle/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

English is a language rich in metaphor — take for example the many ways that human behavior can be linked with birds. Someone who is fearful is a chicken, a show-off can be called a peacock and a prideful person can be said to preen. But some metaphors are so ingrained in the language that speakers forget they are metaphors at all: To comprehend literally meant "to grasp" in Latin, reports Libby Brooks for The Guardian. Now, to fully appreciate the history of English metaphors, dive into the online Metaphor Map from researchers at the University of Glasgow. 

Brooks explains that the three-year-long project is based on data from the university’s Historical Thesaurus of English and includes words and phrases that have cropped over 13 centuries. The visualization shows connections between different concepts. Brooks writes:

For example, when we describe a “healthy economy” or a “clear argument”, we are mapping from one domain of experience that is quite concrete, such as medicine or sight, onto another domain that is rather more abstract, in this case finance or perception, and thus benefits from metaphorical explanation.

Likewise, the phrase "cropped up" links the more concrete domain of plants to a more abstract ones of creation or occurrence. 

For Hyperallergic, Allison Meier offers tips on how to explore the visualization and explains how far the project has yet to go. She writes:

A quarter of the project’s connections are online with plans for expansion, including an Old English map in August. It takes a bit of experimenting with the map to explore its tiered navigation, and the university posted a how-to video as an introduction. It’s also recommended that you check out this page showing all the categories completed online with dates and information, and utilize the timeline view which makes it easier to pinpoint different eras.

The latest blog post, for example, explores the bird metaphors mentioned above in greater detail. The timeline view shows that linking light with knowledge (enlighten, for example) dates back to the late 1100s, and linking texture with a foolish person (a clod, a lump) started in the late 1500s. 

The project is good for more than just curiosity, the principal investigator, Wendy Anderson, told The Guardian

"This helps us to see how our language shapes our understanding — the connections we make between different areas of meaning in English show, to some extent, how we mentally structure our world," she says.

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