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.