When I first came across the phrase “cheek by jowl”, I wondered what jowl could mean. Soon I found another fascinating phrase, “at loggerheads”: where do you find a loggerhead? Why are two people of the same temperament said to be “of the same kidney”? Why do doctors refer to your finger as a digit? These questions prompted me to take a look at the use of the names of body parts in English vocabulary.
The Bible tells us that during the week of creation, God brought out “every beast of the field and every fowl of the air” and asked Adam to name them. The naming of parts of the human body too must have taken place early. These words at first had a physical reference, such as the entries in a glossary of anatomy. But soon, as civilization progressed, people began to toy with the words and find new meanings for them. As a result of metaphorical thinking, languages of the world have been enriched with hundreds of idiomatic expressions. Almost every word referring to the human body has an extended, non-literal meaning.
Take the phrase “the eye of the storm”. It is a two-layered metaphor. The first metaphor refers to the centre of the storm as its eye. The next step is to make the whole phrase metaphorical, as when we say that some politician is in the eye of the storm. People generally take this to mean in the middle of a difficult or controversial and often unpleasant situation. In a meteorological sense, however, the eye of the storm is a rather quiet region, where the winds are calm and the skies are clear. As the eye moves away, the winds become fierce and the storm wreaks havoc again.
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The eye has given us several useful expressions. An eyesore and a sore eye are two different things. The former means a sight that offends you by its bad taste. A sore eye is an infection of the eye, often more inconvenient than painful. Another word, “eyewash”, can mean eye lotion, but more often it means action intended to deceive. From the years of the cold war comes “eyeball to eyeball” used in the context of the Cuban missile crisis.
The word “head” has given rise to several marginally metaphorical extensions of meaning. There is hardly any metaphor when we speak about the head of a pin or the head of a nail. But “hit the nail on the head” becomes a dense metaphor: it means to be exactly right, or state the correct reason. Other interesting idioms frequently used are “make head or tail” of something; “have your head in the clouds”; and “head over heels”. The last phrase is now most often used as part of “head over heels in love”. In the 14th century it was “heels over head”, which meant turning cartwheels to show your excitement, truly upside down. There are some curious idioms that centre on the knees. You may be knee deep in trouble, and if things become worse, you may be neck deep in trouble. You may plead with someone on bended knee, or that person may bring you to your knees. On such occasions you may show a knee-jerk reaction: this phrase means reacting instantly without thinking.
We cannot but be struck by the use of names of animal body parts in reference to human activity. We don’t have horns, but we saw how the ruling party and the opposition locked horns over the nuclear agreement issue. When the elections gave a strong mandate to the ruling party, the opposition found it prudent to pull in its horns.
When Hamlet says “Our withers are unwrung”, a modern audience would hardly know what the reference is. Withers are the top part of a horse’s neck which bears the weight of its load. Hamlet meant, “We are uninjured,” or “We are not guilty.” Likewise, we read that a minister’s comments on Twitter about visas raised the hackles of several members of Parliament. “Hackles” refers to the hair on the back of some animals or feathers at the neck of some birds that rise when the creature is frightened or angry. A similar reaction in human beings produced by cold or fear is called gooseflesh.
Some names have Latin roots, and therefore the metaphor in their use is not obvious. Here is an example. “With the approach of the elections, governments are offering a cornucopia of benefits and concessions.” “Cornucopia” can be translated as “horn of plenty”. The reference here is to a goat that nurtured Zeus, the supreme god of the Greek pantheon. Its horn could supply fruits, flowers, vegetables and grain in abundance to its possessor. “Hysterical” has a Latin root which means “of the womb”. A linguist can then ask, can a male person turn hysterical? The link of the word “accolade” to the human body is curious. The word means embracing someone around the neck: “col” means neck and is related to “collar”. Originally, a monarch conferring a knighthood on someone embraced him by the neck.
“Digital” would be a good word to end with. The world is going digital, and the technology behind this change is advancing at a breath-taking pace. The root of this word is digit, which originally meant finger (Latin digitus). As people were using their fingers to count, the word came to mean number. In simple terms, “digital” means presenting information in discrete numerical form, as contrasted with an analogue system, which is a continuum.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org