tnelms points us to an interesting article in the New Yorker…
John Lanchester decodes the language of the finance industry: When it comes to discussing money, “incomprehension is a form of consent.”
…and then speculates:
There’s probably a linguistic/ling anthro-y term for these kinds of semantic shifts, right kmtam? I don’t mean the “complexification” of language that concerns Lanchester, but the way the meaning of hedge-the-thing widened through metaphor to include a kind of gambling practice, which then became the foundation for the name of a kind of institution.
The term is not particularly cool-sounding. It’s metaphorical extension. And the thing is, this is just how language works. The more that people subsist in a world of brute phenomena and the more that they talk about those phenomena — which is to say, the more people live in a social world — the more likely they are to use ways of describing some part of that world for describing some other part of that world, and in the process create what we typically think of as metaphors. Now many metaphors are conventionalized idioms: “you drive me up a wall” or “it’s hot as hell in here” or “you really hit that one out of the park.” But a lot of them are spontaneously produced in conversation or in our writing, usually for some immediate, context-specific purpose, and some are, of course, purposefully concocted, like most of the ones that Lanchester has identified. But the idea that metaphors have some “original” meaning, or are “really” about one context, and are therefore somehow “less” legit when they’re applied to some other context is mostly a language ideology that assumes that meaning is fixed in language — and in particular, in words, which are just one of the many, many bits of language — rather than constantly negotiated, emergent, and pretty unstable in human communication. This isn’t to say that tracing the historical trajectory of how metaphors evolve isn’t interesting, or even instructive. But doing so often ends up forwarding an argument for the primacy of meaning based on the happenstance of historical sequence, rather than on the ways in which language is actually used within vibrant communities of language users. In other words, the significant relationship isn’t between a metaphor (or word) and its “literal” or “extended” referent, but between the metaphor, the meanings it evokes, and (crucially!) the context(s) in which it’s being mobilized between speakers and hearers (or writers and readers).
The meaning of metaphors, along with the semantic content of nouns and verbs and other parts of speech, and the functions of prepositions and affixes, and basically every other bit of language will always change, will always find new forms of expression or new orderings or new pronunciations, because language is not a system of meaning that exists independent of the people who use it and the projects in which language is mustered, despite what most linguists and common sense tell us. Language and its various constituents, like metaphors, are always dynamic, always mobile, and always social.
What I think Lanchester is actually hitting on, though, is the use of jargon and professional registers as what Alfred Gell calls a “technology of enchantment.” Gell originally talked about this in the context of art, but the basic idea is that there’s something almost magical about the way that artworks are produced, that the technical skill required to create a sublime aesthetic object seems utterly incomprehensible to those of us who lack such virtuosity, and as such most of us are lulled by a sense of “enchantment” when in the presence of a good piece of art (let’s not worry about “good” vs. “bad” art judgments right now). I’d say that the way that finance jargon works is pretty similar. These words — aesthetic objects in their own right — are often complicated, and they refer to complicated phenomena that the people who use them seem to understand, but which the rest of us usually have a much harder time comprehending. Watching (or listening to, or reading) experts use these terms with an ease and aplomb that’s typically reserved for small talking the weather is often like experiencing a virtuoso performance. Most of us will never learn the lingo, let along master the subtleties of its use, which leaves control of the register and its objects in the hands of a small class of experts. most of whom are perfectly happy to talk at us, rather than to us.
Which, of course, is exactly the intended effect. While metaphors, and language in general, are constantly changing and expanding and finding new domains to conquer, this doesn’t mean that the process isn’t sometimes steered and channeled by powerful interests intent on shaping the parameters of debate. How and why this works is one part rhetoric, two parts propaganda, and a healthy dose of Whorf, if you want to get all anthropological on it. But that’s another post for another time.