“And then it was like a light just went off in my head.”
If you’ve ever read or listened to testimonials associated with self-help products or coaching programs, you’ve probably encountered this more than once.
Sometimes it’s part of a video testimonial and you can watch the person’s face light up with a thousand watts of energy as they pair the intensity of the feeling with an inexplicable verbal image of darkness.
Let’s not take away from those “a-ha” moments or the profound and lasting influence of having just the right coach or mentor at just the right time. I’m not going to sneer if it was Tony Robbins who helped you make a distinction in your life that has rescued you from depression while the Psy.D. psychologist you saw for three years could apparently do nothing. But what’s going on here in the language?
For centuries, educated people have engaged in and valued the kind of knowledge that passes through the channels of apprenticeship or mentoring, those abiding realizations that you can’t get from a book or before you’re ready. I’m talking here about deep personal knowledge that a mentor can spark in a pupil or protégé. And it sometimes ignites in a sudden flash of realization.
You don’t have to be a mystic to believe that knowledge is a living flame. You just need the experience of transferred wisdom and the awareness that all language is rooted in metaphor.
Sometimes we’re assembling knowledge below the threshold of consciousness and the right interaction with the sage in the right moment reveals a pattern that the student consciously recognizes for the first time. You’ve been doing the work for this new find yourself, but you didn’t know it.
For just as many centuries as we’ve written things down, educated cultures have likened these moments to getting more light in your life, not less. Reputedly, the dying words of Goethe were “The World Needs More Light.”
If a new realization rocks your world so much that it feels like a stick of dynamite going off, feel free to express it that way. But if the metaphor you choose produces more light than sound, I suggest that it’s better to have that light going on.
Since the days when the few people who could read would have used an oil lamp at night, terms like ‘enlightenment’ and ‘illumination’ have suggested both incandescence and knowing. Light isn’t knowledge any more than feeling “down” means that earth is evil and sky is good, but metaphors of this class are deeply ingrained.We violate or mix basic metaphors at great risk of unintended irony.
“I didn’t tag along with Sally and John because I didn’t want to be a third wheel.”
This is not a huge big deal and I know it’s going to sound a little fussy, but if you’re the third person on what should have been a date for two, you’re the “5th wheel.”
That’s the time-honored if slightly worn expression people are reaching for when they drift a little and get derailed by thinking of the actual number of people involved.
Just remember it’s a metaphor and not literal accounting. If you think of it in active use and not as a spare in the trunk, a 5th wheel would be awkward to the point of cartoon absurdity. A 3rd wheel might mean you own a tricycle.
“He is a brainchild.”
No. He is not a brainchild. He is a child with a brain. Regardless of how super-smart your son or your friend, he’s not a brainchild.
That noggin of his holds such capacities that it may well give birth to inter-dimensional travel or a cure for cancer or a game like Monopoly but nine times as complicated. Or better still: a game that involves jousting from the backs of giraffes.
The person himself will be a kind of parent.
Although, I must be gentle if comically exaggerated about this one. The repeated misuse I’ve encountered may be a limited anomaly or a regionalism. Also, the word “genius” was once used reverently to mean a kind of guardian spirit or muse that could favor your work or leave you cold, and over time it’s come to be applied directly to persons.
Likewise, “Frankenstein” now seems to mean not only the mad doctor but also his unlawful creation.
So I’ve got to fuss and nitpick here with a measure of circumspection and a glass of whiskey. The slippage to meaning persons instead of creations is probably only terrifying to language nerds like me.
What about you? Let’s hear your favorite language gripes in the comments below. And please share this article to Facebook and Twitter.