LINGUIST List 14.3106

Thu Nov 13 2003

Review: Lexicography: Wilkinson (2003)

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  1. Marcus Callies, Thesaurus of Traditional English Metaphors

Message 1: Thesaurus of Traditional English Metaphors

Date: Thu, 13 Nov 2003 01:45:46 -0500 (EST)
From: Marcus Callies <>
Subject: Thesaurus of Traditional English Metaphors

Wilkinson, P.R. (2003) Thesaurus of Traditional English Metaphors,
2nd ed., Routledge (1st ed. 1993).

Announced at

Marcus Callies, Department of English, Philipps- Universit´┐Żt
Marburg, Germany & University of Wisconsin- Madison, USA.


This ''Thesaurus of Traditional English Metaphors'' is a reference
work with supposedly more than 20,000 entries, presenting a vast
collection of a variety of figurative expressions of the English
language. The book consists of a brief introduction (pp. xvii-xx), the
main body of the text, i.e. the actual entries (pp. 1-603), a short
bibliography (pp. 604-8), and two indices, an Index of Themes
(pp. 609-18), and an Index of Keywords (pp. 619-870).

In the introduction, the author reminds us that ''in everyday life,
metaphors take many different forms'' (p. xvii). This statement
mirrors Wilkinson's use of the term 'metaphor': it is employed in a
traditional and very wide sense, thereby including a variety of
different figurative expressions which may be classified as idioms
(''burn the candle at both ends''), proverbs (''carry coals to
Newcastle''), slang expressions (''a pain in the arse''), similes
(''as dark as a pit'') or simply catch phrases (''Welcome to the
club!''), individual words (''purgatory'', ''Blitz'') and proper names
(''Casanova''). Since ''the maiy" purpose of this collection is to
trace the origins of folk metaphor in English'' (p. xvii), one is led
to say that, more precisely, the book is a collection of figurative
expressions of the English language and - as acknowledged in the
publisher's announcement - ''provides an overview of folklore and folk
wisdom as reflected in figurative expressions''.

Given the variety of metaphorical expressions the English language
exhibits, and the difficulty to decide where to draw a line, Wilkinson
makes sure to tell us what is not included in this collection:
''nearly all examples of metonymy, synecdoche and swearing have been
omitted as being too marginal or personal''. Also excluded are
euphemisms, puns, rhymes (such as the well-known ''skin-and-blister''
for ''sister'' in Cockney rhyming slang), the names of natural
species, and purely literary metaphors, ''except for those which have
become traditional by general acceptance, as have many Shakespearean
sayings as well as titles and phrases from modern authors''(p. xvii).

The entries are arranged thematically under the categories from the
traditional cherrystone rhyme ''tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor,
richman, poorman, beggarman, thief'', supplemented by three additional
categories: ''at home'', ''at school'', and ''at play''. The
individual entries presented in each of these eleven
subject-categories are grouped into a set of thematic sections (fully
listed only in the table of contents) which are intended to represent
the originating metaphorical images of the entries. The
subject-categories vary considerably in breadth, ranging from seven
thematic sections per category (A ''Tinker'') to more than ninety (I
''At home'').

Section A ''Tinker'', which is incidentally the least extensive of the
eleven categories and therefore used for exemplary purposes here,
includes the thematic sections 1 ''Wood work'', 2 ''Stone work'', 3
''Metal work'', 4 ''Machinery, computers'', 5 ''Craft skills'', 6
''Power'', and 7 ''Pedlars, tinkers and gypsies''. These sections are
in turn divided into more specific sub-sections, e.g. the thematic
section 1 ''Wood work'' comprises the sub-sections a ''Wood'', b
''Carpentry'', c ''Hammer and nails'', d ''Glue'' and e ''Woodworking
tools and methods''.

Individual entries are accessible via the two indices, most
effectively by using the extensive Index of Keywords, especially since
it lists most entries twice, e.g. the saying ''if it ain't broke,
don't fix it'' is listed both under ''fix'' and ''broke''.

If one was to look up e.g. the meaning of the idiom ''hair of the dog
(that bit you)'', listed in the keyword index under ''hair, of the
dog'',one finds a reference letter and number indicating the entry's
location within the main body of the text. In this case, the idiom is
listed under section G.2d: ''Beggarman, Hostile receptions, Hostile
receptions with dogs''.

The fact that each page has a header indicating the reference letter
and number, as well as the keyword for the respective thematic
subsection, makes it easy to locate the respective entry within the
main text.


Wilkinson's collection clearly represents a philologist's lifetime
work. The sheer wealth and the very broad range of the material
presented is impressive. However, there are two major problems the
user encounters, relating to the organization and accessibility, as
well as the presentation of the entries.

The author's decision to organize his material around the rather odd
eleven subject-categories mentioned above, obviously motivated by his
focus on folk metaphor and folk wisdom, has some significant
drawbacks. Obviously, the introduction of three supplemental
categories to allow for items otherwise difficult to classify is
indicative of the organizational problems.

To begin with, the author's choice of the set of thematic
(sub-)sections to be listed with each of the subject-categories is
largely determined by the assumed social characteristics of the
personae in the cherrystone rhyme. To give an example, the category of
animals, a field which is particularly rich in metaphorical
expressions and thus could have been dealt with exhaustively in its
own right, is split up to meet the specific folk-characteristics of
the character-categories. Thus, animals such as lions, bears, apes and
monkeys, spiders and insects, and reptiles are listed in category C
''Soldier'', fish is included in D ''Sailor'', farm animals are to be
found in category E ''Richman'', whereas supposedly unpleasant species
and parasites are listed under G ''Beggarman''.

In the introduction, the author recognizes that ''metaphor is a means
of expressing one thing in terms of something else'' (p. xvii), and
subsequently introduces the notions of ''vehicle'' and ''tenor'', in
broad terms equivalent to the concepts of ''source domain'' and
''target domain'' in the cognitive approach to metaphor
(Lakoff/Johnson 1980):''In 'Not a person you could creel eggs with'
the vehicle is the idea of two people co-operating to fill a basket
with eggs, and the tenor is the identification of someone as an
unsuitable partner in such a delicate task'' (p. xviii).

Although Wilkinson explains that ''the metaphors in this book have
been arranged by their vehicles or originating images into groups''
(p. xviii) - i.e. the thematic categories are intended to capture the
literal content of the figurative expression, not the metaphoric
aspect - the application of this principle turns out to be rather
difficult and is thus not consistently adhered to in practice.

Whereas the classification of some entries seems more or less
transparent to the user, such as the listing of the similes ''as dark
as a pit'' and ''as black as coal'' in section F.23a ''Poorman,
Miner'', it very frequently leads to rather bizarre classifications,
as in the case of the idiom ''ride like a town bike'', defined as ''of
a woman, have frequent and energetic sex'' (p.573), which is listed in
section K.45a ''At play, Cycling''. Another example is the well-known
idiom ''kick the bucket'' which is listed in category E.29e ''Richman,
The butcher and various meats, Pork'' because of its etymology,
i.e. ''slaughtered pigs are hung by the heels from the 'bucket' or
beam'' (p.189). Similarly, one finds the idioms ''bury the hatchet''
and ''dig up the hatchet'' not in section F.30b;c ''Hatchets; Shafts
and Axes'' where most expressions featuring ''hatchet'' are found, but
in section C.17a ''Different countries and peoples'', a thematic
section which for the most part includes entries relating to (wild)

In sum, the grouping of entries is to a significant extent opaque and
counter-intuitive, and may even seem arbitrary to the non-specialist
user, which is not unproblematic for a volume primarily intended to be
a reference book. This means that the keyword index in particular is
basically the only effective way to quickly find an entry. The
complete listing of the eleven subject-categories and their thematic
sections in the table of contents, as well as the tables preceding
each subject- category which list the complete (sub-)sections, can
only be used for browsing a particular section out of curiosity. The
organization of the material along more transparent parameters, either
by consistently grouping the material according to generic terms
(e.g. all those expressions relating to animals or body parts), or by
arranging entries under their metaphorical content, i.e. the
''tenor'', or ''target domain'', accompanied by the keyword index,
would have been a more user-friendly alternative.

The second problem relates to the presentation and coverage of the
material. The depth in which individual entries are presented varies
to a great extent. Some are extensively discussed and documented in
that the author provides date of first attestation, derivation,
dialectal use and origin, etymology, and definition. Occasionally, a
quotation illustrating the first attestation or the use of an entry is
also given. Other entries are merely listed, without even being
defined or glossed, which makes it virtually impossible to identify
their meanings, especially for non-native speakers.

Moreover, Wilkinson does not give any sources or bibliographic
references in the main text, which is a significant problem for
researchers who may need further information on a specific entry. The
only place where the author briefly acknowledges his sources is in the
introduction, in which he rather unspecifically mentions
''dictionaries and glossaries of dialect and folklore, collections of
proverbs, similes, and slang'' (p. xvii f.), as well as the Oxford
English Dictionary (OED) as his major research tools. Most dates of
first attestation are clearly taken from the OED, but this is neither
explicitly mentioned in the introduction nor indicated in the entries

It is clear that an enterprise like this can per se never reach
completion. However, given that ''the intention has been to assemble
those social or traditional metaphors that have become current in the
English language, including those restricted to a dialect or district
or to even smaller groups'' (p. xviii), the criteria for the inclusion
or absence of a particular item remain unclear. For example, the
expression ''the German's wit is in his fingers'', which is not
defined and which I don't know and cannot find in the OED, is
included, but the rather common and frequent expressions ''to go
Dutch'' or ''Dutch treat'' are not.

Despite these shortcomings, this book is a fascinating work and a
great scholarly achievement. It is well worth browsing individual
(sub-) sections, and there are interesting, surprising and often
amusing discoveries to make. The book should find its place in many
academic and reference libraries, and will be of interest for all
those with an interest in cultural history, dialectology, folklore,
English literature, language and linguistics.


Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson (1980), Metaphors We Live By.Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.

OED (1994), The Oxford English Dictionary 2nd edition on Compact Disc.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Marcus Callies is a doctoral candidate in English Linguistics at
Philipps-University Marburg, Germany and currently a Visiting Research
Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research interests
include Contrastive Linguistics (German-English), Second Language
Acquisition (with a focus on discourse-functional aspects of learner
language and interlanguage pragmatics) and cross-cultural metaphor.
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