Along the chrysanthemum path to abstraction

A frequent reader of Verbal Energy has e-mailed me to take the Monitor to task for failure to distinguish between "farther" and "further." The former is traditionally used to refer to physical distance, the other to degree: "Shall we stop for lunch here, or walk along a little farther?" Compare: "He refused to discuss the matter any further."

So far, so good. But what about metaphorical distance? "I'd like to take that argument a step further." Yes, further, not farther, is the word copy editors, curmudgeons in training, and other sticklers would use. But is there not a case for seeing "step" as indicating distance rather than degree - rather as if the "argument" were a guest at one's garden party and one were walking him or her down the path past the chrysanthemums?

I have a thesis that so many people do so much "virtually" nowadays that they lose their grip on the distinction between what's literal and what's figurative. Does "sending a chapter to the printer" mean delivering a manuscript to a guy in an apron? Or does it mean hitting a button on a computer?

But it's not just technology. It's that people lose track of the way language reflects physical realities of the human experience. Take the word "respiration," for instance. It means breathing, inhaling and exhaling. But its near cousins, "inspiration" and "expiration," have been largely lost to abstraction. We forget about that "breathing in" that precedes an inspired (in both senses) musical phrase from a singer, or the spoken cadence of a debater; and we use "expiration" mostly to refer to credit cards and canned goods.

On the other hand, when we say something like, "Johnny Damon's grand slam in the second inning was truly breathtaking," we're using a figure of speech rooted in the way people actually respond to extraordinary events - they actually do catch their breath.

The history of the word "worry" illustrates a migration from the concrete, physical, and literal realm to the abstract, mental, and figurative. "Worry" derives from an Old English word meaning "to strangle." An example of "worry" used concretely is "a dog worrying a bone." From this concrete meaning come more general notions of being vexed, annoyed, distressed. To say "I'm worried" - by changes in the neighborhood, or whatever - is to acknowledge that you are letting your concern chew on you, as a dog chews on a bone. If you realize that, you may get a grip and stop worrying.

In his 1976 book about the evolutionary development of consciousness in human beings, "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind," Julian Jaynes described how language has evolved to reflect changes in human thought processes over time, as (to oversimplify greatly) mental activity has come to predominate over physical activity.

Jaynes also used the expression "spatialization of time" to describe a mental process of translating time into space. It's something we do all the time with calendars, in which each page represents a month or a week or a day.

This "spatialization" has become ingrained into the way we think. To speak of oil prices, for instance, going "up" or "down" is to reflect a graphical convention for expressing prices over time on a fever-line chart: Y price over X time. And when the trajectory of that chart expresses a sharp course upward, we say, "Prices are skyrocketing!" When they fall from their peak, and then fall again, we say that they have fallen further rather than farther - because we know a real mountain when we see it, and this isn't it.

This appears with links at: http:// weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy

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