The urinal cake principle

Imagine yourself pushing through a crowded train station during rush hour.  As you pass a certain doorway, you detect hints of lavender and hibiscus coming from within.  Do these smells evoke:

  1. just flowers, or
  2. first flowers then toilets based on your prior knowledge and experience regarding the likelihood that lavender is blooming within 100 feet of a subway platform, or
  3. just toilets?

This is the best way for me to understand the principle of dead metaphors.  A dead metaphor is a process of cutting out a semiotic middleman. The process of a metaphor dying is a powerful and inevitable one that affects culture and particularly language in some subtle ways, as I hope to illustrate in as colorful a way as I can.

The process, in dense and unfriendly language, is this: The definition of a symbol over time changes from the first thing (flowers) to the second thing indirectly through the first thing (toilets via floral-scented deodorizing discs), and finally just comes to stand for the second thing (toilets).  This can be true even if the form of the symbol does not change – e.g. if the deodorizer continues to have a floral scent.  The reference stops being indirect and just goes straight for the thing that it was always eventually getting at.

I’ve been trying to think of more real-world examples of this principle in action.  Here are a few more:

A clothing brand (say, Members Only) is associated with rich people.  Poor people start to buy that clothing brand on sale or used because it evokes rich people.  The brand comes to be associated with poor people’s desperation to look rich.  (Louis Vuitton in Japan is rumored to head off this effect by buying back their used bags and burning them to prevent them going to the secondhand market)

“Political correctness” is a recognized phenomenon in polite discourse.  Reactionaries vocally dislike it and use it as a stick with which to beat their cultural enemies.  It comes to be much more widely known for its rhetorical value in reactionary discourse (specifically, their hatred of it) than as a phenomenon within polite discourse.

A famous person with an idiosyncratic name (say, “Zoey”) appears.  People who have kids during the zenith of that person’s career name their kids after him/her.  That name comes to be associated with that generation of kids rather than the famous person.

Taboo concepts have euphemisms invented to avoid direct reference to them while still maintaining the ability to refer to them indirectly if necessary.  Subsequent generations come to think of the euphemisms as simply the names for those taboo concepts, since those are usually the only words for those concepts that they ever hear.  Those generations invent new euphemisms to replace the no-longer-thought-to-be-indirect old ones.

When I was studying Japanese before moving there, we learned 便所 benjo (“convenient place”) as “bathroom”, when practically nobody alive now still uses that word.  Sometime between the 50s and now they were お手洗い otearai (“hand-wash”) or 化粧室 keshoushitsu (“powder room”). Now they are called トイレ toire, presumably until the next generation starts calling them something like ルーム ruumu.

Hipster beards are destined to go from “modern guy” to “guy who still thinks beards are modern” to “guy who doesn’t know that nobody thinks beards are modern” and in 20 or so years “guy who affects not caring that hipster beards are not considered modern” and back to just “modern guy” again.  Believe me; it happened to skinny ties.

Most words unless they were invented very recently are dead metaphors or have changed meanings through some other process.  A word’s history is like the miles of junk DNA we carry around with us in our cells, only using a small portion to form proteins, transmit messages or enjoy an inside joke.  Words like “give up” (my favorite example, a clear dead metaphor), “Wednesday”, or “cranberry” have stories behind their present forms and usages that are very interesting, but also very optional.  Each living word has untold numbers of lost meanings (in addition to its likely numerous current meanings) which we don’t have and don’t need access to in order to use it.  The process by which a word’s meaning changes isn’t always the middleman-eliding of the dead metaphor, but the idea that one doesn’t need all the information about the past referents of a given token to understand it in its current context is the same.

We language teachers often pride ourselves on the elaborate stories and setups that we use to explain usage of one language item or another.  One time I attended a presentation that asked us straightforwardly, “Why do you use on for buses but in for cars?”, to which several teachers laid out the possibly-made-up-but-convincing stories that they give their students.  These stories can definitely be useful for appearing to give students stage-by-stage mastery and “permission” to use a particular language item, things I definitely wanted in my early stages of Japanese learning.  Nowadays, I tend to think of these as a bootstrap or a foot in the door (are those dead metaphors?) than understanding itself, more affective factors than what we would usually call L2 competence.  Naturally, the end goal of most language learning is to have a grasp of the language similar to the fluent speakers in your target community, not to have complete explicit knowledge of the target language (although many learners confuse these two – some teachers as well).  One does not need to know the origin of a word or the logic behind its present form to use it correctly any more than one needs to have smelled fresh lavender as a reference point to know what that same smell means at the train station.


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