Figures of speech

By Michelle Brooke

A Spanish philosopher once said, “The metaphor is probably the most fertile power possessed by man.” A metaphor can take any two entities and compare them, creating a connection between them and thus a deeper understanding of them. The word metaphor comes from the Greek word metapherein meaning “to transfer” or “to carry over.” Similar to a metaphor is a figure of speech or idiom, essentially metaphors that have been used so often they have become fixed, such as “a dime a dozen” and “the last straw.”

Perhaps there has been a time when you have been confused by what someone has said, only to be told, “It’s just a figure of speech.” Figurative language helps us express ideas in new and creative ways. But it takes a different part of the brain to process this figurative language.

Much of our everyday-language processing takes place in the brain’s left hemisphere, the logical hemisphere. The left hemisphere processes each word and strings them together to determine the entire meaning of a sentence.

Figurative language, however, must be processed by the right hemisphere. Let’s look at the idiom “The cat is out of the bag.” This phrase would begin in the left hemisphere as the brain tries to decode its literal meaning. In this case, however, the literal meaning makes no sense to the conversation – there is no cat that has escaped a bag. Therefore, the right hemisphere must take over; this is the side of our brain that takes care of abstract thinking. The right side analyzes the sentence as a figurative expression and allows us to understand the abstract relationship between a cat escaping a bag and a secret being let loose. In fact, studies have shown that those with injuries to the right side of their brain have difficulties processing figurative speech.

Both sides of the brain play a crucial role in language processing and creative expression. By using figurative language, we can communicate with imagination and originality.

Michelle Brooke is a Carleton University student majoring in linguistics and French and minoring in German. She loves learning and writing about language.

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