Ideas and metaphor

Posted by Andy Gavin on Tue, 2006-04-04 15:21

The The Word-Nerds have an interesting pod-cast explaining a well used metaphor in politics: The Ship of State. This dates back to Plato's republic. I've heard this metaphor reused in different ways by different authors recently. They point out that governor has its roots in the Roman word for Helmsman.

It shows how a good metaphor can be very powerful. It provides ways of talking about areas of the problem that everyone understands. It allows you to quickly express complex ideas and emotions. For example if you're sailing close to the wind then it implies more work, rougher sea and a narrower margin of error. Rocking the boat can be easily understood as something like sabotage; although in calm seas could be a joke. There are many.

Sailing however is a unique form of transport that makes it compelling as a metaphor. One aspect that makes it good for problem solving is that you cannot just sail anywhere in a boat; you cannot sail into wind for instance and getting to a far destination involves a degree of planning and foresight: you need to account for time and weather and plot a course. Once that is done, sailing the boat requires constant adjustment and the environment dictates where you can and cannot go.

The language associated with sailing is rich too. One method of slowing the boat to stop, for instance, is normally referred to as scandalizing the main (sail). Once you step foot on a boat everything has a different name. It also illustrates how linguistic relativity might well be true. If we did not have sailing, the language would be poorer and less expressive: leading to fewer ideas.

Add new comment