The emergence of a new way to talk about time (in research and in real life)

Events are rescheduled all the time. Many of us live highly planned and structured lives, in which changes to plans are more of the rule than the exception. When changing the time of an event, you might say that a dinner has been pushed back an hour, or that a trip has been moved up. But you probably don’t say that the meeting has been pushed to the right. Unless you’re a member of the US military.

That’s the main finding from research that I completed with Ben Bergen and Tyler Marghetis. Specifically, members of the US military find lateral metaphors (the words “left” and “right”) more acceptable for talking about time than civilians do. Phrases like “Next Wednesday’s meeting was moved two days to the right, to Friday” were more acceptable to military members than to civilians.

You can read more about that research in an earlier post I wrote, but one of the most important parts of that research is the so what? — why we found it useful to work on this topic in the first place. It’s not just that one subgroup of English speakers uses conventions that others don’t. Instead, we find it significant that English speakers generally think about time in terms of lateral space (something that has been shown extensively by other cognitive psychologists), but only a subset of us (military members, apparently) actually talk about it that way. Yet it’s a logical way to talk. It avoids ambiguity inherent in phrases like “Next Wednesday’s meeting was moved forward two days.” (Is this meeting on Monday or Friday? People are divided on this answer).

In this regard, military members might be ahead (to the right?) of the rest of us — they might have conventionalized a system of metaphors that will gradually become more mainstream.

When we first wrote these ideas and presented them to academic audiences, I thought there was a chance we were right — that someday it would be very normal in standard American English for someone to say that “Next Wednesday’s meeting was moved two days to the right, to Friday.” I thought this because my husband is in the military and says things like this to me regularly. Soon he might not be in the military, but might continue to say things like this, particularly at work with civilians. Who might, in turn, start using the lateral metaphors at home with their own families. And so on. It seems possible that these lateral metaphors are in the process of catching on with the larger population of American English speakers.

This seemed like a solid enough idea in theory, but I wasn’t sure I’d put money on it actually happening.

Then I saw this billboard in a metro station.

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www.getleftofboom.com

To be honest, I didn’t know what being “left of boom” meant at first. But when I actually went to the site, I learned that the company behind the ad (authentic8) is selling a secure remote browser called Silo. Their entire advertisement (in billboards and online) is an extension of the metaphor that earlier things are to the left and later things to the right. “Boom” is “an exploit, a data leak, compliance violation, or worse.” Bad cyber security tools “work right of boom. They assess and analyze content after it’s hit your network. By then it’s too late.”

I don’t know the particular target audience for these ads. Maybe many people in companies that might buy Silo have military (or government) work experience. In these cases, it’s likely that those targeted by the ads are at least somewhat familiar with this explicit lateral metaphor for talking about time. But I’d also guess that military- and government-adjacent people are not the only target customers. Authentic8 is counting on potential customers to either be familiar with lateral metaphors or to intuitively understand them.

I have no idea if their advertising strategy is effective. Do people even understand the ads? Or, on the flip side, do they understand them so easily that they don’t even notice the strange metaphor? Will one of my colleagues start talking about moving meetings left and right soon?

I don’t know — so stay tuned!

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