March 19, 2006

Ayn Rand psychologizes a trope

There's more wrong with Ayn Rand's attribution of significance to the fact that Americans (supposedly only Americans) speak of "making" money than Mark points out in his post on the comparative etymology of the money-creation metaphor, in which he shows that the trope goes back at least as far as Latin.  I would never attempt to improve on Mark's scholarship;  my objection is orthogonal to his.  I suggest that if it was true that Americans were the first and only people to use a verb meaning 'create' in the sense of 'accumulate' when the object is money, that observation would signify little or nothing about Americans or anything else.  Rand is here committing the common error of psychologizing a trope.  To psychologize a trope is to assume that if some people talk about A as if they thought about it in terms of B, then those people think about A in terms of B. 

If you worry you may perhaps be a crypto-trope-psychologizer, here's an exercise.  The French expressions for kite (that you fly) and bat (the flying mammal) are, respectively, cerf volant lit. 'flying deer' and chauve souris lit. 'bald mouse'. Ask some French speaker if they think about kites as flying deer or about bats as bald mice.  My experience is that French speakers can be stunned at the images aroused by the literal interpretations of these expressions.  If people talk about A as if they thought about it as B it is of course possible that they really do think about A as B, but a possibility is not a necessity.  There are cases where the expression "dead metaphor" appears to be pretty darn apt.  The "making money" trope is a promising candidate.

[Some previous Language Log posts on related themes:

"Mohawk Philosophy Lessons" (11/18/2003)
"88 English Words from Snow" (12/7/2003)
"Somali Words for Camel Spit" (2/11/2004)
"The Eskimos, Arabs, Somalis, Carrier ... and English" (3/4/2004)
"Lavatory Lexicography" (7/8/2004)
"No Word for Sex" (3/12/2005)
"Etymology as Argument" (6/18/2005)
"Etymology as Argument Again" (6/29/2005)
"(Hallucinatory) Etymology as Argument" (7/11/2005)


Posted by Paul Kay at March 19, 2006 11:01 PM