The Grammar Goddess discusses figurative language and 'Tucson: The Event'

My husband says he's sick of the whole topic, so I'm not going to write about the shootings, or about the people of Tucson, or the shock and shame and horror, or about the moral. ("Guns don't kill people; paranoid schizophrenics do."). Nor will I write about the sheer now-ness of first getting the news that morning from a friend's Facebook post.

Instead, I would like to talk about how figurative language works.

And, no, I'm not going to rail on about the rhetoric of the right, which would be irresponsible and provocative. Besides, rhetoric doesn't kill people; the failure of community colleges to provide mental-health interventions to part-time students kills people. Right?

Still, language does have the power to make a person feel things. Reading The New York Times each morning and seeing "Tucson" become synonymous with the events of Jan. 8 was like having rocks dropped on my head. This lessened as time went on, and the squadrons of journalists deployed here gradually discerned a difference between "Tucson" and "Arizona." (As a friend of mine at work sadly observed the Monday after, "We're just some rinky-dink town in a state everybody hates.")

The sensation was reminiscent of the aftermath of Sept. 11, when I sometimes felt that the words coming out of the radio and TV were physically hitting me—as I recall, "anthrax" was especially painful. And since I'm old, I was also reminded of the effects of the news of the assassinations of the 1960s, which punctuated my childhood and adolescence like explosions in the distance. (Long-range rifles don't mow down whole crowds along with politicians; Glocks with extended clips do.)

Now, when I say it was like having rocks dropped on my head, or that the murders of political leaders are like distant explosions, those are similes. (The use of "Tucson" by the national press to denote the shootings is, on the other hand, a metonym. More about that in a minute.) This is not mere linguistic decoration: It's an attempt to give physicality to mental things, and thus say more clearly what they are like.

Simile is just the overt form of metaphor, which is likening one thing to another without saying that they're alike. And metaphor is so intrinsic to our patterns of thought and speech that language is unimaginable without it.

Take, as a random example, the profession of Giffords' husband. He's an astronaut, which comes from "astron," star, and "nauta," sailor. Look at all that's folded into those three syllables—the equation of stars with space, of space with the sea, of sailors with any kind of distant traveler. We cannot even say what a thing is without comparing it to another thing.

The other main category of figurative language is metonym, which is talking about one thing by naming something else, not in terms of resemblance, but of proximity. The usual example given is the White House. The actual White House is just a building, but because so much happens inside and around it, it's convenient to talk about what the White House says, does, thinks, hopes and fears. Metaphor works like poetry; metonym is a kind of shorthand.

So when "Tucson" is used to mean the events of Jan. 8, that's using the name of a place to denote an event that occurred there. You see this most commonly with battles—Waterloo, Gettysburg, Pearl Harbor—and sometimes with other kinds of startling, significant events—Watergate, Three Mile Island, Columbine, Virginia Tech. Places that no one hears much about otherwise sometimes hold on to these meanings in common speech, but cities—which are complicated, busy places—shake their identification with terrible events quickly: No one automatically thinks of the JFK assassination when they hear or see the word "Dallas" anymore. Soon, "Tucson" won't mean what happened in front of the Safeway at Oracle and Ina roads. Not to most people, anyway.

Interestingly, dates are much less likely to become metonyms for events than places. That takes a gigantic event, one that overwhelms a whole day for everyone—it has to be something like what we call Sept. 11.

Which, strangely enough, happened to be the birthday of Christina-Taylor Green, who was hurt, like the others, not by words, and not in any figurative sense, but—heartbreakingly, incredibly—really shot and killed for no reason on a mild Tucson morning. By yet another crazy person with a gun.

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