To Wit: An E-zine On How To Be a Wit

This is an E-zine from Thomas Christopher on how to be witty.


I'm offering T-shirts and other self-expression products designed using the techniques discussed here. I've set up an online "store" at I expect to use many of the designs as examples in this e-zine.

Levity is the soul of wit; brevity, its body.

Use Metaphors To Transfer Associations

Last issue we discussed how to use metaphors and similes to emphasize the common ground between two things. In this issue we look at using metaphors to transfer associations to use what we know about one thing to help us understand another. Although we will think mostly in terms of metaphors, we can actually use similes, comparing rather than identifying two things. The metaphor LOVE IS A JOURNEY and the simile LOVE IS LIKE A JOURNEY are constructed in the same way, and mostly used in the same way.

Recall that the three parts of a metaphor are the tenor, the vehicle, and the ground. In the metaphor, LOVE IS A JOURNEY. The thing you are using the metaphor to describe, LOVE, is the tenor. The different thing, A JOURNEY, with which you equate the tenor, is the vehicle. LOVE and A JOURNEY both involve leaving our area of comfort, exploration and learning. This commonality is the ground.

Metaphors let you transfer associations from the vehicle to the tenor. You can start with only the tenor. You list associations for the tenor, and for each of those associations you list other things that have the same association. The association itself is a potential ground, and the other things with that association are potential vehicles. You are looking for associations for the vehicle that can be usefully transferred to the tenor, so you examine the other associations of those vehicles in order to see if the other associations are indeed useful.

Here are some ways you can benefit from transferring associations:

You can use a metaphor to give the tenor a structure. You are using something that is known to help understand something that is unknown or poorly known. For example, we say "your life story" or "the story of your life," making the metaphor LIFE IS A STORY. A person's life and a story do have considerable ground in common: beginning, middle, end; characters; motivated actions; conflict. But the stories we tell each other have meaning, and if life is a story it is natural to speak about the meaning of life. Would we ask about the meaning of life is we weren’t using that metaphor?

As another example, we can say CREATIVITY IS LIKE EVOLUTION. Making small changes is like mutation. Conceptual blending, putting elements of different ideas together, is like sexual reproduction combining parts of chromosomes. Creating lists of ideas is like producing many offspring. Selecting those ideas that have the most promise is like natural selection.

You can use other associations of the vehicle to give you new insights into the tenor, for example, consider these metaphors for life:

Life is a drama: some people are actors, some people are audience, and some people are prompters clutching last year's script.

Life is a collection of short stories, but we're expecting a novel.

Life is a canvas upon which we paint. Every so often we change the subject of the painting. But we want to keep the brush strokes we've already made.

You can use analogies to better understand one concrete thing by reference to another concrete thing. Computer software uses many analogies. The computer screen is seen as a “desktop.” Information on the computer is kept in “files,” which are kept in “folders.”

You can use our feelings for or interactions with the vehicle as the ground. When we call someone we love "baby" we are transferring our feelings about babies--our desire to cherish them and to take care of them.

We can use the vehicle to provide concrete imagery for understanding the tenor, as in this extended simile:

Human reality is like a computer. The physical properties of semiconductors constrain, but do not determine the kind of circuitry we can build. The circuitry constrains, but does not determine the instruction set of the computer. The instruction set constrains, but does not determine the operating system that can run on the computer. The operating system constrains, but does not determine the application software that can run on the computer. And so it is with us: physics, chemistry, and biology constrain what we humans are like, but they do not determine culture. Culture constrains what its members are like, but the individuals are diverse.

You can use unexpected associations of the vehicle for humor. “My love is a rose. She's got aphids.”

You can use an outlandish vehicle for humor. In rhetoric, this is called catachresis. Consider this piece from Alan Bennett (I’m giving part of it from memory): "Life is rather like a tin of sardines. We are all of us looking for the key. And when we find the key to the sardine tin of life, and we have enjoyed to the good things therein, there is always a morsel in the corner that we can't quite get at."

We have looked at six ways to use metaphors and similes to transfer associations from the vehicle to the tenor. We can give a poorly known or abstract tenor structure. We can gain new insights into the tenor. We can use analogies to understand concrete tenors. We can provide concrete imagery. We can use our feelings as a ground to transfer a kind of relationship. We can use outlandish vehicles and unexpected associations for humor.

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Thomas Christopher, Ph.D.: Seminars, Speeches, Consulting
1140 Portland Place #205, Boulder CO 80304, 303-709-5659,
Books through Prentice Hall PTR, albeit not related to wit: High-Performance Java Platform Computing, ISBN: 0130161640, Web Programming in Python, ISBN: 0-13-041065-9, Python Programming Patterns, ISBN: 0-13-040956-1