Look up “lexicographer” in Johnson’s Dictionary or “Encyclopedia” in the Encyclopédie. Look into the Aleph. “What’s another word for ‘thesaurus’?”

In the first volume of her British Synonymy (1794), Hester Lynch Piozzi, née Thrale, takes up the pairing “IDENTITY and SAMENESS.” Again, we feel we are at the hub or heart of the matter, the core, the center. The two headwords, she explains, “would be nearly synonymous in conversation” only that as “the first is a word pregnant with metaphysical controversy, we avoid it in common daily use, or at best take it up merely as a stronger expression of unchangeable SAMENESS” (295).

The metaphysical controversy alluded to first appears in Locke’s Essay.1 The pregnancy must be laid at his door. Personal identity is an eighteenth-century problem. To paraphrase Piozzi: identity and sameness would be nearly the same, nearly identical, in meaning, were it not for metaphysical controversy.

Sameness is as Sameness does. What then of identity? Is it not the same? In Piozzi I hear Paul de Man’s “repetitive stutter of tautology” (16). We are at the edge or verge of something: synonym as limit case.

Piozzi collects synonyms and, in that sense, pursues synonymy, the study of synonyms. Hers is, as advertised, a British synonymy, one composed for “Foreign Friends” and published at the height of The Terror. Revolutionary politics promise radical equality. Citizens are treated all the same before the law.

Anti-Jacobin Piozzi would preserve distinctions and patrols the borders of English. And so Piozzi does more than alphabetize terms: synonymy is the rhetorical figure by which synonyms are used for the sake of amplification. It is her avowed purpose to “rescue that pleasing rhetorical figure from the imputation of tautology” (vii). She turns up the volume, increasing the distance between the same and the identical as she increases the distance between French and British, between philosopher and patriot.

British Synonymy is a reactionary project. She throws Hume and Lovelace together in the entry on “IDENTITY and SAMENESS.” The philosopher and the fiction, the skeptic and the libertine, are rakish twins. First she cites Richardson, “Mowbray and Tourville with their everlasting IDENTITY are complained of by Lovelace in his anxious agony of mind” (295).2 Piozzi then imagines David Hume reading Clarissa. Hume, notes Piozzi, would correct Lovelace’s usage. The resemblance of Mowbray and Tourville is “no proof of IDENTITY, however it might give a SAMENESS of their character” (295).

Piozzi’s entries are relentlessly moral and political. The sameness of character that comprehends the rakes Mowbray, Tourville, and Lovelace is attributed to Hume as well. The skeptic, she warns, is best despised; “some of them may possibly have a real interest in considering their existence to be dubious, that escape may be effected from accounting for its errors and crimes” (296). Lead us not into sameness, but deliver us through synonymy.

Like Samuel Johnson, Piozzi knows that close work with words is more than “harmless drudgery.” Like the ordinary language philosopher J. L. Austin worrying the difference between nearly allied terms, Piozzi resituates inquiry in the disappearing space between two synonyms. For all the harmlessness and humility rehearsed in the opening pages of British Synonymy, the study of synonymy is promoted as first philosophy.

The short entry on identity and sameness closes by reversing its headwords: “We should therefore be aware of these scepticks, and as little possible I think dip into their books; from whence little amusement or instruction can be derived, but much SAMENESS, particularly in their discourse upon IDENTITY” (296).

Piozzi’s dismissal of metaphysics is punctuated by the subsequent heading, “IDIOTISM, FOLLY, SIMPLICITY, FATUITY.”


1 In 1694 Locke added a new chapter, “Of Identity and Diversity,” to the second edition of the Essay.

2 See Letter 372 (VI.78). At M. Hall, Lovelace imagines having a “young Lovelace by such an angel” as Clarissa, but his tone soon changes (p. 1147). He is “Tired with Lord M.,” “tired with my cousins Montague,” “tired with Mowbray and Tourville, and their everlasting identity—tired with the country—tired of myself; longing for what I have not” (pp. 1150-1)

Furniture of the Mind

— for Jay Fliegelman

Standing about are pots, pulleys, lids, bottles of oil, and chairs. I conjure a room of the sort conjured for us in Tristram Shandy (III.xx). The room is a fiction, a perspicuous representation, every point and particle made up of sunbeams. It is a room that we might call, hewing here to Wittgenstein more than Sterne, a “visual room,” a room inhabited by no one in particular. It is not mine, not Tristram’s.

It is in this room that we discover the author seated in his cane chair. It is here we learn that wit and judgment, are like two knobs on a chair back, stuck in their gimlet holes. Here we consider the significance of mental furniture.

Wit and judgment. But “one cannot couple any two nouns at random and be sure to produce an effective metaphor,” so claims Max Black. He continues, “If the reader doubts this, let him try to make sense of ‘a chair is a syllogism’” (23).

The chair is a syllogism. Wit will try, in spite of judgment. But no, I suppose I don’t doubt Black’s claim. And the chair cannot be both an emblem of the faculties and a syllogism; — at least not the same chair. At least not in the same paragraph.

Sterne: “an illustration is no argument—nor do I maintain the wiping of a looking-glass clean, to be a syllogism” (III.xx). How then is a chair like a syllogism? — Like a raven to a writing desk? Is a chair finely made tragic or comic? What is needed is an example, by way of illustration.

Major premise: All men are mortal.
Minor premise: Socrates is a man.
Conclusion: Socrates is mortal.

This piece of text, just as Tristram Shandy, is haunted by mortality. Haunted like all text.

In his essay, “The Superannuated Man,” Charles Lamb complains, “I had grown to my desk, as it were; and the wood had entered into my soul.” Philosophy has its furnishings, and the philosophical are invested in furniture. Melancholic and sedentary, they sit and they think and they write to the moment.

Hume conjures a room in his Treatise:

The table is beyond the paper. The walls of the chamber beyond the table. And in casting my eye towards the window, I perceive a great extent of fields and buildings beyond my chamber … I lose sight of them by shutting my eyes or turning my head, I soon find them return upon me without the least alteration. My bed and table, my books and papers, present themselves in the same uniform manner, and change not upon account of any interruption in my seeing or perceiving them. (I.iv.2)

Interiority is the aspect of an interior. This page. This desk. This chair. These knobs. These books and papers. A glimpse of something outside. A room furnished by writing to this moment. Hume’s room is as much a fiction as Tristram’s. But that syllogism, it is something else. Inexorable. I can’t lose sight of it by shutting my eyes or turning my head.

This chair. My chair. In lectures and textbooks, the chair is the ready-made illustration of Aristotle’s four causes (formal, material, efficient, and final): a chair’s form is its structure. This chair. Aristotle, who favored walking and looking about, is made available to undergraduates in the example of an armchair.

But A is B. The chair is a syllogism, of a kind. Here, come look. I will prove it. The seat, a major premise; the back, the minor; by way of conclusion we are seated. In “our armchair of an afternoon,” we murder Socrates over and over again in hopes of grasping the fatal, ineluctable logic of C is B.

What a company of chairs are here! The learned lumber and furniture of the mind, no one will pack it up when it is time to go. No one will insure it. It will not return without alteration. Who will unload it and put it where it belongs?

All chairs are syllogisms. Black: “In the absence of some specially constructed context, this must surely count as a failed metaphor” (23). Could a metaphor fail and still be a metaphor? Is my prose context enough?

When we are to be informed of the death of a loved one, we are made, first, to sit down.


Court, n.

It is the policy of a dictionary to enumerate the senses of a word. The senses of the word “court, n.” in the Oxford English Dictionary number nineteen.

Why not eighteen? Sharper analysis promises to reduce this promiscuity. But why not twenty? Some hapax legomenon threatens to upset the count.

Our dictionaries—even “the definitive record of the English language” (i.e., the OED)—testify to the arbitrary ways in which polysemy must be numbered. New uses are found for old words and available senses are multiplied.

What should be the policy for a dictionary of metaphors? Metaphors don’t readily lemmatize. A heading is then chosen for rhetorical effect; it is no definiendum. Indeed, a metaphor is never a single word, some narrow vehicle, focus, or target whose meaning has changed, whose new “figurative” meaning could be somehow defined. Here modern linguistics and philosophy of language depart from classical rhetoric and ordinary intuitions about metaphor.1

The lexicographer collects examples of usage and groups them according to related uses and senses. But the poet urges that each true metaphor is a bold departure from the literal, one that expands the language in a new direction. As we pass from lexicographical to literary critical concerns, we refine our theories of how metaphors mean.

Consider the example of Court metaphors for the mind. The word “court” has a variety of senses: we imagine a court of law or the retinue or body of courtiers who assemble around a monarch. A court is variously a place (an enclosed or confined area), a collection of persons, or a political institution. Court may be held, or it may be paid.

When the mind is figured as a court, which of these senses of the term is selected? A yard, a princely residence, a retinue? Who shall judge?

The mind is a court. In it we are enclosed and confined as in a court-yard. But the mind is also a scene of proceedings, a court in which precedents are made, testimony heard, or judgments overturned—a court of law, a court of conscience. Alternately, the mind may prove no more than an assembly of personified impressions and faculties, individuals, or courtiers, who seem attendant upon some executive power but in reality busy themselves in pursuit of their own petty concerns.

Diverging senses of a word help mark moments in political history: originally, it was the monarch himself who dispensed justice and presided over the court.2 The Lord Chancellor was “Keeper of the King’s Conscience.” The royal court was a place filled with courtiers and a court of law both.

By the time of the 1688 revolution it is easier to make distinctions between a king’s court and the court of law. In part, James II’s meddling with the courts precipitated his replacement and reinforced distinctions between the executive and judicial powers of government.3 We would expect to see metaphors from the long eighteenth century display the disambiguation of these two senses of “court.” And we do.

Moreover, the Court metaphors collected in The Mind is a Metaphor Database, cluster in ways in which politics and word sense are significantly correlated. In fact, the use of metaphor divides neatly along party lines.

Different meanings for different leanings. Tories use Court metaphors to picture a court presided over by Queen Fancy (the political historian immediately thinks of the Harley ministry’s relationship to Queen Anne); whiggish metaphors are more jurisprudential: the pictured court is one in which reason presides and sensation and conscience give testimony.4

This example of clustering by metaphor and party affiliation is startling. The structures described by the lexicographer speak directly to the political historian. Perhaps we should revisit George Lakoff’s claims that metaphor and party are importantly correlated.4


1 In an essay collection like Andrew Ortony’s Metaphor and Thought, theorists of metaphor from Searle to Lakoff who agree about little else grant that metaphors do not operate—as was thought by the classical rhetoricians and eighteenth-century writers on belle lettres —at the level of the word. Meaning is something best located (if we must locate it) at the level of the sentence.

But the differentiation of literal and figurative at the sentence level is uncomfortable work at best; and a literary critic who, like the author of these blog-like pages, works without a fully developed theory of meaning can only ever make hesitating, contingent claims about meaning and metaphor. I for one write literary history because I am persuaded by Quine’s suggestion that the basic unit of significance may be the whole of a language, the complete science or a theory.

Under the narrow heading “COURT” then, a reader must be prepared to encounter theoretical discussions of influence, theatricality and power; the biographies of the opposition figures who collected around the Prince of Wales; a compact history of natural law and common law traditions; philosophical discussions of testimony; a Begriffgeschichte-style analysis of the concept of conscience; and fictional representations of trials in the novels of Henry Fielding. The unit of significance designated by the rubric “COURT” is a wide web of intellectual history.

2 Compare senses 9 and 11 in the Oxford English Dictionary (Link to “Court, n.”). The OED notes that “Justice was in early times administered in assemblies held by the sovereign personally (sense 9), then by judges who followed the king as officers of his court; hence the title the King’s Courts (curia regis).”

3 The Bloody Assizes of 1685 that followed the Monmouth rebellion damaged James’s reputation; then in 1686 James’s coercion of the King’s Bench provoked further opposition to the monarch’s absolutist agenda. The 1689 Bill of Rights explicitly prohibits the king’s ability to tamper with juries

4 A cluster tree created by D. Sculley serves as a striking visualization of word sense disambiguation along party lines. Machine learning methods separate Whig and Tory and disambiguate sense at the same time. The top branches of the tree are filled with Tories; the bottom, with Whigs.


The hierarchical tree is constructed from abstract “bag-of-words” representations of the metaphors. The computer knows nothing of eighteenth-century politics or word sense but groups metaphors according to feature scores generated from Kullback-Leibler distances.

4 See, for example, Lakoff’s Moral Politics: How Conservatives and Liberals Think. 2nd ed. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

As It Were

Must we mean what we say? In the case of metaphor, meaning is underspecified, patently false, or—according to some theorists—somehow transmuted. Somehow changed.

Words must mean just what they mean.1 But what of speakers? What of writers? We say one thing but mean, as it were, another.

“As it were“—a curious, parenthetic phrase. As if it were so. A phrase used “to indicate that a word or statement is perhaps not formally exact though practically right” (OED). The mood is subjunctive. One would say it, if only he could mean it.

The philosopher is much given to hedging claims with an “as it were.” So Descartes writes, “I am not merely present in my body as a sailor is present in a ship, but […] I am very closely joined and, as it were, intermingled with it” (56). The intermingling or permixing (the Latin is permixtio) is indeed “perhaps not formally right.” I am not the sailor, not the ship, not even the voyage. In the Cartesian account, I am more like the tar, pitch, and tallow—the sealant, as it were.

Oh unfortunate dualist, betrayed by a philosophy of language. There are not two kinds of meaning, literal and figurative. Nor are there two substances, matter and mind. Still we let the one dualism structure the other and are held captive by false distinctions.

James Beattie makes a pun of a kind: “when the senses have nothing to employ them, the mind is left (if I may so speak) a prey to its own thoughts” (I.ii, p. 92). In a moment of parenthesis, literal turns figurative: caged animal spirits turn predator.2

In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke uses an “as it were” to bracket the metaphor of his opponents: “It is an established Opinion amongst some Men, That there are in the Understanding certain innate principles; some primary Notions, koinai ennoiai, Characters, as it were stamped upon the Mind of Man; which the Soul receives in its very first Being; and brings into the World with it” (I.ii.1).

But Locke marks out his own metaphors as well: memory is “as it were the Store-house of our Ideas” (II.x.2) and “The Mind very often sets it self on work in search of some hidden Idea, and turns, as it were, the Eye of the Soul upon it” (II.x.7).3

“As it were” has its equivalents. There is the Latin tanquam, the alliterative “so to speak,” and the polite pair “if I may so say” and “if I may be so bold.” A character in Henry Fielding’s Amelia begs leave: “So many tender Ideas crowded at once into my Mind, that, if I may use the Expression, they almost dissolved my Heart” (I.iii.3).

Andrew Marvell uses a parenthetic phrase in his “Dialogue Between the Soul and Body.” The imprisoned Soul complains that it is “hung up, as ‘twere, in Chains / Of Nerves, and Arteries, and Veins” (ll. 7-8).

Marvell’s parenthetic is paradigmatic. As in Marvell, the qualification “as it were” often marks imprisonment of the mind or soul in the body. The believer believes that the soul will go free. The prison is only a prison as it were.

The subjunctive “as it were” is an incantation or an amulet. The philosopher produces it to protect himself from his own terminology. A metaphor is meant to open a space to mean something else. The dualist would stage a prison break and repeats—incants—the parenthetic in hopes of navigating some impossible distinction.

I quote Ludwig Wittgenstein: “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside of it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably” (§115).


1 Donald Davidson argues, correctly I think, that “metaphors mean what the words, in their most literal interpretation mean, and nothing more” (245).

2 Sarah Fielding writes of Lady Dellwyn, “she had no Food from outward Objects, to employ her animal Spirits, and they therefore prey’d at home; and oppressed her own Mind” (I.i.10).

3 Locke deploys “as it were” more than fifty times in the Essay. See Locke’s assertion that the memory is the ability to to “revive” ideas and “as it were paint them anew on it self” (II.x.2). Our ideas are “as it were the pictures of things” (II.xxix.8). The mind may be “as it were manacled in the chain of syllogisms” (IV.xvii.5).

The Metaphorical Flood

A watchword in eighteenth-century criticism is “propriety.” It is a dam built against the cheap, popular productions of Grub Street writers. True wit is a propriety of words and thoughts adapted to a subject.1

The Neoclassical author must observe decorum, strive for both correctness and simplicity, and avoid low, vulgar comparisons. In literary history, notably since Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, the elegance of Neoclassicism is contrasted with the extravagance of seventeenth-century Metaphysical wit.

But metaphor is, by definition, an improper use of words. Nathan Bailey’s 1730 Dictionarium Britannicum defines metaphor as “putting a foreign Name for a proper one.” Likewise, in his Lectures on Rhetoric, Hugh Blair claims, metaphor occurs “when, in place of using the proper name of any object, we employ in its place, the name of some other [object] which is like it” (294).2

Metaphor flouts propriety by putting improper names in the place of proper ones. Metaphor is displacement. What place then can metaphor have in those studied attempts of the Neoclassicists to observe propriety?

No paradox lurks here. Metaphor occupies a central place in eighteenth-century literature. Truly, there is little, if any, literature that does not avail itself of metaphor. The literature of the eighteenth century is no exception; it is awash in figuration. Propriety is a false standard.

Critical pronouncements and artistic practice typically diverge. Hobbes and Locke, master metaphorists, are repeatedly cited as professed enemies of figurative language; belle-lettrists warn against metaphor and then deploy it in the same sentence.2 Do as I say but not as I do.

I will not explore contradictions under the sign of aporia. My discussion of propriety prefaces a selection of tortured comparisons from The Mind is a Metaphor database. Extravagant, gross, and vulgar violations of propriety interest me. Decorum is breached to specific ends.

The literary traditions that focus on capturing “the inwardness of our mental lives in a quite direct, experiential manner” succeed by “straining the resources of everyday language in the interest of fidelity to this experience” (Toulmin 4). Against constraint we strain.

Sir Richard Blackmore, physician and minor eighteenth-century poet, writes,

Thou see’st from whence her Colours Fancy takes,
Of what Materials she her Pencil makes
By which she paints her Scenes with such Applause,
And in the Brain ten thousand Landskips draws.
The Cells, and little Lodgings, Thou canst see
In Mem’ry’s Hoards and secret Treasury;
Dost the dark Cave of each Idea spy,
And see’st how rang’d the crouded Lodgers lye;
How some, when beckon’d by the Soul, awake,
While peaceful Rest their uncall’d Neighbours take.
Thou know’st the downy Chains that softly bind
Our slumb’ring Sense, when waiting Objects find
No Avenue left open to the Mind.
Mean Time thou see’st how guideless Spirits play,
And mimick o’er in Dreams the busy Day,
With pleasant Scenes and Figures entertain,
Or with their monstrous Mixtures fright the Brain.

The stanza is itself a “monstrous Mixture” of metaphors and personifications. Blackmore, a versifier of Lockean philosophy, gives us images that would explain mental imagery; he pictures ideas that sleep in the consciousness and animal spirits that wake when we dream; he produces an allegory of these actors and their activities and furnishes the variegated scene with pencils, hoards of treasure, landscape paintings, caves, lodgings, chains, and avenues. The figuration is both in and out of doors, a fancifully painted “Landskip” but also the brain’s terrain.

Blackmore’s metaphors are often characterized as bombastic by his contemporaries. Yet Blackmore works in the epic form. He wields pentameter and couplet. His figuration is contained in “epic similes.” His models are Virgil and Milton. He pursues propriety. Still, Blackmore found himself attacked by Dryden and later by the Scriblerians and Alexander Pope.

Pope ridicules Blackmore in the Dunciad. In the mock olympic games of Pope’s satire, Blackmore is a contender. When the dunce poets dive in the sludge and sewage of Fleet-Ditch, Blackmore is celebrated (along with Matthew Concanen) for his bathetic perseverance:

True to the bottom, see Concanen creep,
A cold, long-winded, native of the deep!
If perseverance gain the Diver’s prize,
Not everlasting Blackmore this denies:
No noise, no stir, no motion can’st thou make,
Th’unconscious flood sleeps o’er thee like a lake (II.288-92).

Perhaps Blackmore pursues propriety too far. Lord Kames warns that metaphors must not be “extended to a great length, nor be crowded with many minute circumstances” (119). Moreover, metaphors should not be joined in the same period (124). An extended metaphor overstrains the mind. At least Blackmore is in good company. Overly nice eighteenth-century critics often accuse Shakespeare of mixing and muddling his metaphors. Kames, for one, treats Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech explicitly.3

In closing I treat the reader with two hydrological metaphors, both of which strain propriety. Impropriety itself may be characterized as a flood in which metaphors arrive torrentially. Blair notes, “Whenever the imaginations of the vulgar are much awakened, or their passions inflamed against one another, they will pour forth a torrent of Figurative Language” (275).

The novelist Tobias Smollett mixes Liquid metaphors and Mineralogical ones with satirical effect. Remember Blackmore’s cells, caves, and hoards; in Smollett the mind is a mine sluiced and impregnated with vitriol:

After a weak mind has been duly prepared, and turned as it were, by opening a sluice or torrent of high-sounding words, the greater the contradiction proposed the stronger impression it makes, because it increases the puzzle, and lays fast hold on the admiration; depositing the small proportion of reason with which it was before impregnated, like the vitriol acid in the copper-mines of Wicklow, into which if you immerse iron, it immediately quits the copper which it had before dissolved, and unites with the other metal, to which it has a stronger attraction (168).

The superintendents of propriety instruct us to not concern ourselves with the workings of sluices, or with the corrosive effects of vitriol. Technical vocabularies are faulted by those who begrudge vulgar professionals their own “high-sounding” words. Blair finds metaphors “borrowed from any of the sciences, especially such of them as belong to particular professions, are almost always faulty by their obscurity” (362).

I take my final example from Samuel Richardson’s Pamela:

While the Banks of Discretion keep within their natural Chanel the proud Waves of Passion, all calm and serene, glides along the silver Current, inlivening the adjacent Meadows, as it passes, with a brighter and more flowery Verdure. But if the Torrents of sensual Love are permitted to descend from the Hills of credulous Hope, they may so swell the gentle Stream, as to make it difficult, if not impossible, to be retain’d in its usual Bounds. What then will be the Consequence?— Why, the Trees of Resolution, and the Shrubs of cautious Fear, whose intertwining Roots had contributed to support the frail Mound, being loosen’d from their Hold, they, and the Bank itself, will be seen floating on the Surface of the triumphant Waters (III. L63, p. 431).

Richardson pictures the stream of consciousness as a passionate torrent. He extends his metaphor beyond all belief.

The critic may value propriety over the bombastic, the strained, and the mixed. Or he may come to prize the excessive language Johnson dismisses as a “cumber of magnificence” (in Life of Cowley 116).

We’ve seen that Hugh Blair pictures cumbrous language as a vulgar “Torrent” and Pope as an “unconscious flood,” and we begin to understand that the metaphor for metaphor is liquid.

On this anniversary day, metaphors proper and improper, “high-sounding” and vulgar, pour forth as a torrent of language. The sluices open. The oceans rise. The tide has not yet turned. “Triumphant Waters” and high-sounding, empty rhetoric will cover, bury, and drown us all.


1 The sentiment is John Dryden’s. But see Addison’s revision of the definition in Spectator No. 62: “Mr. Dryden’s Definition of Wit; which, with all the Deference that is due to the Judgment of so great a Man, is not so properly a Definition of Wit, as of good Writing in general.” See also William K. Wimsatt and Cleanth Brooks in Literary Criticism: A Short History. vol. 1. U of C Press: Chicago and London, 1987. pp. 228-34.

2 See also The Ladies Rhetoric: “Metaphors are Words taken from their natural Signification, and from the Place where they were proper, to make them serve in another that bears some resemblance with the natural Signification” (Anonymous 88). Or Charles Rollin’s 1734 translation of The Method of Teaching and Studying the Belles Lettres: “The metaphor is a figure which substitutes the figurative terms it borrows extraneously, as it were, by a kind of exchange, in the room of proper words which are either wanting, or have not energy enough” (162). The fifth sense of “propriety” in the OED is “the proper, strict, or literal sense of a word” (emphasis mine). Behind all these definitions stands the Aristotelian pronouncement that “Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else” (Poetics 1457b5-10).

3 On all these points Hugh Blair agrees with Lord Kames. Metaphors may be “too far pursued” (370). Cowley, Shaftesbury, and Young are prone to wearying us with the play of their fancy. Shakespeare is faulted for making two metaphors “meet on one object” (365). And even Pope is faulted for producing periods that are not all literal or all figurative but mixed.