Verbal Energy

After the holidays, so much to unpack!

The Monitor's language columnist on the usefulness of the suitcase metaphor.

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It took me quite some time to unpack from my holiday travels this year – because I was looking into some more metaphorical "unpacking."

Have you noticed the use of unpack to mean explain, clarify, or comment on?

A blogger taking issue with a cable TV interview with one of the Republican presidential candidates started out thus: "There was a lot to unpack in Wolf Blitzer's interview with GOP presidential contender Newt Gingrich...."

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A headline at the website for WBEZ, Chicago's National Public Radio station, referred to an episode on the station's "magazine" show as "Unpacking another year in the saga of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich."

Off in mellow British Columbia, a blogger in the Times Colonist's spirituality section wrote at the new year that there is "a classical Zen response to the problem that life is hectic and complicated" and went on, "In this piece I want to try to unpack this idea."

Even Christmas got "unpacked," it appears, along with all the gifts beneath the tree: A headline last month in Inspire, a British religious magazine, read, "Two family shows will help unpack the Christmas story in Hampshire this year."

Is this use of "unpack" just one of those buzz phrases that make the rounds? (Remember when everyone started talking about the need to "grow the economy," as if it were zucchini in the backyard garden?) But this meaning is well established in the dictionaries. Macmillan's definition No. 2 for the word is "to explain something difficult by reducing it to small simple stages or by using simpler language." Over at Merriam-Webster Online, "to analyze the nature of by examining in detail" is definition No. 3. But this dictionary goes back to Shakespeare for an example of its definition No. 1b of unpack, meaning "unburden, reveal."

Even in its most concrete meaning, unpack is already a workhorse: You unpack your suitcases by taking your clothes out of them. You unpack your clothes by taking them out of your suitcases. And then for good measure, when you haul the suitcases containing your clothes into the house, you unpack the car. Versatile verb, no?

Once a word based on metaphor gets established, though, we sometimes lose sight of the imagery behind it and end up using another idiom, in which the original metaphor is more obvious and explicit. That's what seems to be going on when pushback is used to mean "resistance," as discussed here some time back.

Develop is another "buried metaphor" word. The underlying idea is "unfolding" or "unwrapping."

Unpack doesn't stand in quite the same literal-equivalent relationship to develop as push back does to resist. But push back provides a concreteness that's been lost from resist, and I have a hunch that people are reaching for unpack for the same reason. If our Zen blogger, for instance, had written, "I will try to develop this idea," his piece might have smacked too much of English class.

"Unpack Your Adjectives" is a music video to help teach schoolchildren the parts of speech. It "unpacks" (explains) how adjectives describe people, places, and things, and playfully encourages children to bring them along on trips, so they can "unpack" them (pull them out of their bags) to use to describe their adventures. It's a bit of grammatical fun. And it "works" because the metaphorical unpacking is in sync with the concrete.

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