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FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE Also figurative usage. LANGUAGE in which FIGURES OF SPEECH such as METAPHORS and SIMILES freely occur. In classical RHETORIC and poetics there is an inherent contrast between figurative or ornamental usage on the one hand and literal or plain and conventional usage on the other; in this contrast, figures of speech are regarded as embellishments that deviate from the ‘ordinary’ uses of language. The 16c English rhetorician George Puttenham described the contrast as follows:
As figures be the instruments of ornament in euery language, so be they also in a sort abuses or rather trespasses in speach, because they passe the ordinary limits of common vtterance, and be occupied of purpose to deceiue the eare and also the minde, drawing it from plainnesse and simplicitie to a certain doublenesse, whereby our talk is the more guileful and abusing, for what else is your Metaphore but an inuersion of sence by transport; your allegorie but a duplicitie of meaning or dissimulation vnder covert and dark intendments? (The Arte of Poesie, 1589). Puttenham implies here that there is a core of simple, literal language that can be distinguished from ornate, figurative language (which engages in a kind of unnatural double-dealing). There is, however, a paradox at the heart of the classical argument that Puttenham presents. The 18c Scottish rhetorician Hugh Blair touched on it when he wrote:
But, though Figures imply a deviation from what may be reckoned the most simple form of Speech, we are not thence to conclude, that they imply anything uncommon, or unnatural (Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, 1784). In this paradox, figurative language succeeds, somehow, in being both natural and unnatural at the same time.

From deviant to natural

The classical view was dominant at the end of the 19c, when the American rhetorician John F. Genung described figurative language as an ‘intentional deviation from the plain and ordinary mode of speaking, for the sake of greater effect’ (Practical Elements of Rhetoric, 1893). In the late 20c however, a change of approach was under way: for example, while referring to ‘an intentional deviation from the normal’ (in the traditional way), the American critic Joseph T. Shipley observed: ‘Figures are as old as language. They lie buried in many words of current use. They are the backbone of slang. They occur constantly in both prose and poetry’ (Dictionary of World Literary Terms, 1970). Two recent dictionaries demonstrate more explicitly a shift in the perception of the term ‘figure of speech’ away from linguistic deviance towards stylistic creativity, defining it as: (1) ‘a form of expression (e.g. a hyperbole or metaphor) used to convey meaning or heighten effect, often by comparing or identifying one thing with another that has a meaning or connotation familiar to the reader or listener’ (UK: Longman Dictionary of the English Language, 1984); (2) ‘An expression, such as a metaphor or hyperbole, in which a nonliteral and intensive sense of a word or words is used to create a forceful, dramatic, or illuminating image’ (US: American Heritage Dictionary, 1985).

Deciding where the literal ends and the figurative begins is notoriously difficult. There is no irreducible core of ‘literal’ language from which ‘figurative usage’ diverges. Rather, there is an easy movement between the one pole and the other: for example, behind such an everyday word as brand (in the sense of ‘product’ or ‘trademark’) is a history of burning that includes what was done to animals and slaves to mark them as property. The modern use of brand as ‘product’ is in effect a literal usage, yet its origin in branding-irons and the like is distinctly metaphorical and figurative. Similarly, behind the various fields in which scholars work lie the patches of land where farmers have ‘literally’ worked for millennia, and such a phrase as electromagnetic field, however mundanely literal it may be for physicists, depends for its creation on a comparable figurative shift: Puttenham's ‘inuersion of sence by transport’.

Defining figures of speech

The precise definition of a figure of speech has proved to be as difficult as determining the limits of figurative usage. For centuries, rhetoricians have debated what each presumed figure refers to and how various figures relate to each other. As a result, metaphor in some approaches contains METONYMY, in others does not, and SYNECDOCHE may or may not be a kind of metaphor or metonymy. As a result, in recent years attempts to arrange the figures hierarchically have been abandoned in favour of lists in which the main devices are presented each more or less in isolation, as stylistic equals, but perhaps with notes on celebrated doubts and ambiguities about their precise natures and relationships. Classical rhetoric has tended to present figurative language as the concern primarily of poets, orators, critics, and language teachers, while conceding (usually in a brief aside) that everybody else uses it too and that the term therefore covers a universal practice in which sound, spelling, grammar, vocabulary, usage, and meaning are adapted to achieve special stylistic effects.

Kinds of figurative language

(1) Phonological figures include ALLITERATION, ASSONANCE, and ONOMATOPOEIA. In his poem ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1842), Robert Browning repeats sibilants, nasals, and liquids as he shows how the children respond to the piper: ‘There was a rust ling, that seemed like a bust ling / Of merry crowds just ling at pitching and hust ling.’ Something sinister has started. (2) Orthographic figures use visual forms created for effect: for example, America spelt Amerika (by left-wing radicals in the 1970s and as the name of a movie in the 1980s), to suggest a totalitarian state. (3) Syntactic figures may bring the non-standard into the standard language, as in US President Ronald Reagan's ‘You ain't seen nothing yet’ (1984), a nonstandard double negative used to project a vigorous, folksy image. (4) Lexical figures extend the conventional so as to surprise or entertain, as when, instead of a phrase like a year ago, the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote a grief ago, or when the Irish dramatist Oscar Wilde said at the New York Customs, ‘I have nothing to declare but my genius.’ When people say that ‘you can't take’ something ‘literally’, they are generally referring to usage that challenges everyday reality: for example, through exaggeration (the HYPERBOLE in ‘loads of money’), camparison (the simile ‘like death warmed up’; the metaphor ‘life is an uphill struggle’), physical and other association (the metonymy ‘Crown property’ for something owned by royalty), and a part for a whole (the synecdoche ‘All hands on deck!’).

Puttenham divided figures into those that please the ear and the mind (or both), but to be effective, figurative usage does not need to please. The spelling Amerikkka has sometimes been used, especially in graffiti, to suggest that the Ku Klux Klan has great influence over how the US is governed. The usage is both imaginative and striking, but to many Americans it is very far from pleasing. The aim of all such usage is to make an impact: pleasing, shocking, political, social, etc. The ends of figurative language are achieved through repetitions, juxtapositions, contrasts, and associations, by violating expectations, by evoking echoes of other people, places, times, and contexts, and through novel, provocative imagery. When such usage succeeds, new expressions, concepts, and associations may be established in a language, as with loads/tons of money. When an expression succeeds so well that everyone adopts it, the result in due course is the opposite of what was first intended: a CLICHÉ from which the figurative power has drained away.


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