June 28, 2006

Been catachresis so long it looks like an idiom to me

Yesterday ("It's not hyperbole, but what is it?" 6/27/2006), Catherine Burriss and I asked what to call the use of associative exaggeration in sentences like "Movies, theater, parties, travel—those are just a few of the English nouns that parents of young children quickly forget how to pronounce", or "Been walking so long, forgot how to ride". This question was inspired by Geoff Pullum's dissection of a Father's Day article by Daniel Gilbert ("Words fathers forget how to pronounce", 6/18/2006, and "For the millionth time, it's not hyperbole", 6/19/2006). I agreed with Geoff that hyperbole is too specific, and concluded that metalepsis is too general. In response, readers sent in several sorts of insights.

Alexandra C. Horowitz wrote:

Is "catachresis" closer? My old reliable Quinn text, "Figures of Speech", claims it can be used to describe "a substitution of a noun or verb that...jars our sensibilities," for instance. He gives Cervantes "the very pink of courtesy" and cummings' "the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses" as examples.

And Karl Hagen made the same suggestion, and explained:

In the sense in which it is usually used today, [catachresis] is close to metalepsis, but additionally contains the notion of the ridiculously impossible--"an extreme, far-fetched, or mixed metaphor; strained or deliberately paradoxial figure of speech" (see http://www.nt.armstrong.edu/term2.htm)

Metalepsis and catachresis, of course, are not necessarily mutually exclusive. A figure can be both.

And it's also worth noting that the strong tendency that people seem to have to insist that this is hyperbole is itself an instance of catachresis, as Quintillian originally defined the term. Quintilian had in mind the use of the closest available term, when something more exact was lacking. This would seem to be exactly the process that people are using in calling it hyperbole:

"The more necessary, therefore, is κατάχρησις (catachresis), which we properly call abusio, and which adapts, to whatever has no proper term, the term which is nearest, as,

    Equum divinâ Palladis arte

    A horse they build by Pallas' art divine;"

--Quintilian, 8.6.34

With respect to the original example about parents' forgetting how to pronounce words like movies, Maryellen MacDonald wrote to remind us of the expected malfunction of speech production processes in neglected areas of the mental lexicon:

[T]he mapping from meaning to pronunciation is probably the most fragile part of the language production process, and the not uncommon failure to produce the pronunciation while still knowing the meaning is called  by psycholinguists the Tip of the Tongue (TOT) state, as you undoubtedly know.  It's extremely well documented that the likelihood of being in a TOT state for a given word is strongly dependent on the word's frequency--the less often one has said, heard, read, and probably thought about a word, the more likely one will have TOT state when trying to produce it. 

and to suggest that

the key argument is about usages of "forget" to mean "not be able to access at this moment".  ... [M]emory researchers also have this usage too, in that they use "forgetting" to mean any decay in representation, which need not mean total loss.  So on this view, it's not hyperbole, it's just forgetting, but apparently a different sense of forgetting than Geoff has.

In fact, the OED memorializes the sense of forget that Geoff (mock-) forgot:

3. To cease or omit to think of, let slip out of the mind, leave out of sight, take no note of.
c. To drop the practice of (a duty, virtue, etc.); to lose the use of (one's senses). to forget to do = to forget how to do (something).

with citations from a few psycholinguists over the years:

c1385 CHAUCER L.G.W. 1752 Lucrece, Desire That in his herte brent as any fire So wodely that hys witte was foryeten.
1590 SHAKES. Com. Err. III. ii. 1 And may it be that you haue quite forgot A husbands office?
1592 —— Ven. & Ad. 1061 Her joints forget to bow.
1670 MILTON Hist. Eng. II. 36 The terrour of such new and resolute opposition made them forget thir wonted valour.

There's also this:

4. In stronger sense: To neglect wilfully, take no thought of, disregard, overlook, slight.

a1703 BURKITT On N.T. Jas. ii. 5 Men wallow in wealth, and forget God.

I had remembered (but edited out of my earlier post) some examples of this sort, including a passage from chapter XIX of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club:

This constant succession of glasses, produced considerable effect upon Mr. Pickwick; his countenance beamed with the most sunny smiles, laughter played around his lips, and good-humoured merriment twinkled in his eye. Yielding by degrees to the influence of the exciting liquid—rendered more so by the heat, Mr. Pickwick expressed a strong desire to recollect a song which he had heard in his infancy, and the attempt proving abortive, sought to stimulate his memory with more glasses of punch, which appeared to have quite a contrary effect; for, from forgetting the words of the song, he began to forget how to articulate any words at all; and finally, after rising to his legs to address the company in an eloquent speech, he fell into the barrow, and fast asleep, simultaneously.

and especially this famous example from Psalm 137

5 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,
            let my right hand forget her cunning.

where forgetting and remembering are as much about attention as about memory, since remembering is urged even on God:

6 If I do not remember thee,
            let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth;
            if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
7 Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom
            in the day of Jerusalem;
            who said, Rase it, rase it,
            even to the foundation thereof.

I remembered the beginning of this beautiful psalm, which was featured in the lyrics of the Melodians' 1972 reggae hit. I'd forgotten the grim and eerily topical ending:

1 By the rivers of Babylon,
            there we sat down, yea, we wept,
            when we remembered Zion.
2 We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
3 For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
            and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying,
            Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
4 How shall we sing the LORD's song in a strange land?
5 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,
            let my right hand forget her cunning.
6 If I do not remember thee,
            let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth;
            if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
7 Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom
            in the day of Jerusalem;
            who said, Rase it, rase it,
            even to the foundation thereof.
8 O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed;
            happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
9 Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth
            thy little ones against the stones.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 28, 2006 12:11 AM