I mentioned in an earlier post George Lakoff’s work on metaphorical language. One fascinating issue is the way same metaphorical target can be mapped onto by multiple conceptual domains, and sometimes these can come into conflict — or a metaphor can come into conflict with the literal meaning of the target. When the figurative-literal target conflict is particularly succinct, this tends to be called “oxymoron”. One of my favourites is the 1970s novel and subsequent film about a burning skyscraper, called The Towering Inferno.
This particular one depends on the conflict between the “UP is GOOD, DOWN is BAD” metaphor (an indirect form of it, since it goes by way of DOWN is BAD is HELL is BURNING), conflicting with the literally towering skyscraper. Anyway, the UP-DOWN dichotomy gets used a lot, creating lots of potential confusion. For example, UP is DIFFICULT and DOWN is EASY, inspiring the famous allegory of Hesiod that inspired so many devotional images:
Vice is easy to have; you can take it by handfuls without effort. The road that way is smooth and starts here beside you, but between us and virtue, the immortals have put what will make us sweat. The road to virtue is long and steep uphill hard climbing at first.
Hence the uncertainty of the phrase “Everything’s going downhill.” Is it getting worse, or getting easier?
There is a triple ambiguity when numbers get involved. LARGE NUMBERS are UP (“higher numbers”, “low number”) when we are counting the floors of a building, but SMALL NUMBERS are UP when ranking (#1 is the winner and comes at the top of the list).
This brings us to the example that inspired this post. The BBC news web site this morning told us that “A&E waiting times in England have fallen to their worst level for a decade.” It’s hard to feel much sense of urgency about the fact that waiting times have “fallen”.