Butts on fire

English speakers use a lot of butt-on-fire metaphors: we can say someone’s ass is on fire, that he needs to light a fire under his ass, and even the visual of someone flying by the seat of her pants in a chaotic situation conjures an image (for me) of smoking butt. These metaphors all mean different things, but are (appropriately) all descriptions of intense situations (or attempts to intensify a situation, in the case of lighting a fire under someone).

pantsWhat’s up with this fiery butt obsession? Do other languages share it?

Conceptual metaphor theory (CMT) suggests that we actually understand many concepts and experiences in terms of others. For example, our understanding of time relies on an understanding of space, and the way we think about love is often based the the way we think about a journey. Our language can reflect these conceptual metaphors, as in the deadline is approaching, the best is ahead of us, our relationship is rocky, or referring to an anniversary as a milestone. According to proponents of CMT (George Lakoff is probably best known), we also think of anger as heated fluid under pressure. Angry people might blow their top, explode, or have steam coming from their ears. I don’t know whether we really do conceptualize anger as a heated fluid under pressure, but if we do, it’s interesting to think that the heat isn’t confined to escaping from our head – all orifices seem to be fair game.


P.S. I made the mistake of Googling “ass on fire” while writing this. Bad idea.

A movable academic feast

This weekend I’m at Psychonomics, and except for the fact that there’s no food at the conference, it is very much a movable feast. Just like at many restaurants, before the experience even starts you can go online to get a menu in the form of a 300+ page program. Both menus are broken up in a logical sequence – either by appetizers, mains, and desserts or by morning, afternoon, and evening sessions. Instead of separate sections for meat and fish, though, the conference menu has sections for poster sessions and talks, and subsections for posters and talks that are on related topics.

The menu is only a small part of the experience, though. It’s a guide. The feast starts when you get to the conference center, choose an item off the menu, and seek it out. You float from one conference room to another in many cases, each time getting a small taste of something new. It’s not the Olive Garden with whopping portion sizes and bottomless breadsticks, though by the end you’ll probably feel like you ingested the mental equivalent of a huge bowl of penne alla vodka (which is delicious, but also invokes lethargy, a coma-like feeling). It’s rich and filling, an experience you know you want to have again… but first, a recovery period.


What’s in a name of a hurricane?


A few months ago, a study came out in PNAS that sparked a lot of media interest: Female hurricanes are deadlier than male hurricanes. The idea is not that the most severe hurricanes happen to have female names, but instead that more people die in hurricanes that have female names than in those with male names.

500px-Cyclone_Monica The study involved the analysis of death rates for over 60 years, which included 94 hurricanes. The archival data showed that for hurricanes that did little damage, the difference in the death tolls between masculine and feminine hurricanes was marginal. For hurricanes that had greater damage, however, the number of fatalities was substantially higher for female-named storms than for male-named ones. Further, they classified names for how masculine or feminine they are (referred to as the Masculinity-Femininity Index, or MFI). For example, a highly feminine name would be “Eloise,” (with a score of 8.944) while the female name “Charley” was rated as much less feminine (MFI = 2.889). The researchers found that even within feminine-named hurricanes, the more feminine a name was (the greater the MFI score), the higher the number of fatalities. Specifically, their data suggest that if a severe hurricane’s name is Eloise, it will kill 3 times as many people as if it’s named Charley. The explanation for the correlation between might seem intuitive and surprising at the same time: we have gender-based expectations that females are less aggressive. This unconscious bias seems to invoke a lower perceived risk for female hurricanes, so people take fewer precautions like evacuating. In light of these findings, The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the group who names the storms, might want to reevaluate its naming practices to avoid names that might encourage dismissal of a hurricane’s danger. In case they’re looking for inspiration, I have a few suggestions. What NOT to name a female hurricane:

  • Any flower name: this includes Daisy, Petunia, Lilly, and sadly, Rose
  • Pooh Bear (imagine the reactions if meteorologists announced that Hurricane Pooh Bear was headed for the coast)
  • Any name that has repeated syllables: can we expect people to take Coco or Fifi seriously?
  • Any name that’s shared with a Barbie doll, like Skipper, Stacie, and certainly Barbie
"Hurricane Barbie is on her way!"
Hurricane Barbie is on her way!

And some names that people might take more seriously:

  • Names that invoke big, tough women you wouldn’t want to mess with: Bertha, Agnes, or Madea
  • Gender-neutral names, like Alex, Casey, or Jamie
  • Non-human names: names like PX-750 or The Hulk might do the job
If you heard "Hurricane Madea is heading for the coast," what would you do?
Don’t mess with Hurricane Madea.

Study says, suck it, Shakespeare

When I was growing up, a lot of people, upon learning that my name is Rose, found it clever to say “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” I eventually realized that what Shakespeare was saying when he wrote the line is that names are irrelevant – a rose is a rose, regardless of what we call it. The Shakespeare-quoters were basically saying to me (unknowingly, I assume): your name is irrelevant, but hey, look! I know a line from Shakespeare.

Image: http://www.babyfloret.com/blog/Babies-Sense-Smell-Birth.html
Image: http://www.babyfloret.com/blog/Babies-Sense-Smell-Birth.html

A team of researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute conducted a study to investigate the role that an odor’s name has on people’s perception of the smell. They had people smell different odors that were accompanied by either a positive, negative, or neutral name. Positive names included countryside farm (is that really a positive-sounding smell?) and dried cloves. Negative ones included dry vomit and dentist’s office. Neutral ones were things like numbers. The names did not actually correspond to the smells, so any effects of name on perception didn’t result from the positive sounding smells actually smelling better. The researchers had participants rate the pleasantness, intensity, and arousal of the smells, and they also collected participants’ heart rates and skin conductances as they smelled the scents as measures of physiological arousal.

Perhaps not surprisingly, smells were rated to be significantly more pleasant and arousing when they were accompanied by positive names than when accompanied by neutral or negative names. Smells were rated as most intense when they had negative names, as opposed to neutral or positive ones. Taken together, the findings suggest that the names we use to describe odors (and many other aspects of our world) affect the way we perceive the actual smells. More specifically, we probably use the odor names to make a prediction, even if it’s a very general one, about what we’re about to experience. These predictions, in turn, seem to color our actual experience with the world, often in self-fulfilling manners.

I wonder if we could harness this knowledge of the effect of positive-sounding odor names to make certain jobs, like latrine odor judges, slightly more pleasant…

Metaphors and the government shutdown

Jon Stewart comically pointed out some bizarre metaphors bering used to talk about the government shutdown:

For one, Obama drew an analogy to workers at a factory, saying that the shutdown would be like workers who decided not to return to work if their employer refused to give them the benefits they demanded. Personally, I don’t think this analogy is too clever – that’s exactly what happened, but I guess if Obama thinks his message will be clearer to the average American if he talks about it in the context of a job the average Joe might have… it’s an interesting rhetorical strategy.

Stewart also showed a clip of Republican Senator Tom Coburn comparing the nation’s debt to credit card debt, and making a show of physically ripping up a giant credit card, belonging to “Washington.” Again, I’m not sure I would call this metaphor very creative, and I’m skeptical that his show of cutting up the card was very persuasive… but another interesting rhetorical strategy.

Image: http://www.theatlanticwire.com/entertainment/2013/10/jon-stewart-unpacks-metaphors-government-shutdown/70383/
Image: http://www.theatlanticwire.com/entertainment/2013/10/jon-stewart-unpacks-metaphors-government-shutdown/70383/

The final spotlighted metaphor in the Stewart segment was by Republican Senator Mike Lee. He compared spending in Congress to an instance of going to the grocery store and being forced to buy a book about cowboy poetry, Barry Manilow albums, and a half ton of iron ore, when he only wants bread, milk, and eggs. At first, his point was lost on me, but then I realized that his gripe is with paying for things for other people – things that one might not actually want. For some reason I have trouble feeling sympathetic for someone whose grocery store sells Barry Manilow albums and books of cowboy poetry – it sounds much more interesting than the one I frequent.

Although I think the metaphors that Stewart highlights are all pretty weak attempts at reframing the current situation, I think it’s cool that politicians intuitively (I’m assuming) appreciate metaphor’s persuasive power and are attempting to use it to their advantage. If they actually did a good job of it, it might be cause for worry- the possibility that they might be able to persuade just by referring to Congress as a factory is a little alarming!- but for now, I don’t think we have much cause for worry.

Grad school is like…

Now that I’ve survived my first full week of classes in grad school, I am clearly a grad school expert.


But I have been spending quite a lot of mental energy trying to figure it out – noticing how it’s similar to, and especially different from, undergrad; working to figure out what’s expected of me, by others and myself; and trying to articulate what exactly my goal(s) is/are.

This look is pretty consistently on my face. Image: http://janiebryant.com/blog/265/
This look is pretty consistently on my face.
Image: http://janiebryant.com/blog/265/

I’ve also been a bit preoccupied with metaphors, as I’m working on a metaphor-based research proposal for a fellowship application. I guess the two have become intertwined in my subconscious, because my first (coherent) thought upon waking up this morning was, “grad school isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon!” Not long after I began giving myself credit for this clever analogy, I was racking my brain for more. As a firm believer that concrete metaphors help us make sense of complicated abstract concepts, I was determined to uncover more metaphors for grad school as a means of better understanding what exactly it is I’m doing with my life.

Naturally, I turned to Google, querying, “Grad school is like “. Here’s what I found:

According to Ronald Azuma:

“Being a graduate student is like becoming all of the Seven Dwarves. In the beginning you’re Dopey and Bashful. In the middle, you are usually sick (Sneezy), tired (Sleepy), and irritable (Grumpy). But at the end, they call you Doc, and then you’re Happy.”

Image: http://www.jasperfforde.com/toad/dwarves.html
Image: http://www.jasperfforde.com/toad/dwarves.html

Another way to think about it might be the Dorothy’s saga in The Wizard of Oz. So far this aspect of her story feels most parallel to mine:

A huge weather event occurs, dramatic enough to lift the whole house and deposit it in a parallel universe, bursting with plastic flowers and a phalanx of Little People dressed in outfits vaguely reminiscent of lederhosen.  

Image: http://janiebryant.com/blog/265/
Image: http://janiebryant.com/blog/265/

This is true: perplexing undergraduate creatures are everywhere!

 Another metaphor I found intriguing is that grad school is like kindergarten:


After this exercise in metaphor collection, I feel much more confident that I’ve got a solid mental conceptualization of grad school. I’ve got it dialed in now, and I’m ready for week 2 🙂

The danger of metaphor

I have a thing for metaphors – not only do they make language more interesting, but may also be at the core of our lives, shaping our perception and conceptualization of every situation.  One great study showed how metaphors can shape our reasoning- the researchers found that framing a city’s crime problem as either a virus or a beast systematically influenced participants’ suggestions of how to deal with the problem. This comic gives another example of metaphor getting in the way of communication: