Can time grow longer and shorter?

A fairly untraditional paper assignment that I’m working on required a trip to the children’s section of my local library this weekend. I browsed the selection looking for examples of metaphor and found, unsurprisingly, that the content of children’s books is for the most part literal. However, upon closer scrutiny, I found some sneaky metaphors – language that is so common it slips under the radar. Finally I chose a book called The Growing Story as the subject of my paper.

Image: http://www.betterworldbooks.com/the-growing-story-id-0060247177.aspx
Image: http://www.betterworldbooks.com/the-growing-story-id-0060247177.aspx

The story starts with a boy, his puppy, and some chicks, all of whom are very little. As the winter turns to spring, things start growing: buds on trees, grass, and flowers. The mother tells the boy that he, his puppy, and the chicks will all grow too. On the next page, the author writes, “The days grew longer. The nights grew shorter. The grass grew faster. The flowers grew higher. Leaves grew big on the trees.” This immediately struck me as a cool use of the verb “grow.” A single page depicts both abstract growth (days and nights can’t actually grow longer and shorter) and literal growth (grass, flowers, and leaves do actually grow). This is even cooler because we don’t even notice the dual use of the word grow – it seems totally natural to us, and presumably to children.

The first metaphor, days growing longer, jibes with conceptual metaphor theory (CMT), the idea most often associated with Lakoff & Johnson that we conceptualize abstract phenomena through metaphors that are grounded in our bodies and experiences. When things grow, they increase in size, so as summer approaches and we experience more hours of daylight, it seems consistent to say that the “days grow.” But if this makes sense because growing means increasing in size (or duration, in this case), then how can the nights grow shorter? If CMT explains the naturalness of the days growing longer, it seems that it should be confusing for us to hear that nights grow shorter.

But most of us wouldn’t even give this phrase a second glance. I didn’t, until I reread the book slowly and meticulously, specifically examining the metaphors. Why doesn’t this jump out at us?!

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