My parents were driving me up to grad school to the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario a few days ago. Besides being excited at being a graduate student in mathematics at one of the best (if not the best) university for math in Canada, I would like mention an incident that happened on our way up. It was a long drive (I’m from Nova Scotia) and we stopped at two places on the way up. On our second day, we were stuck in the car for twelve hours going from Fredericton, New Brunswick all the way to Brockville, Ontario! Anyway, we were on the highway and at some point we got behind a big line up of vehicles that were going slower than they should’ve been, and Dad made the comment that there was probably some clown at the very front of the parade of vehicles that had decided to go slow and was holding up the traffic.
At this point, I just felt like laughing out, but did my best to keep it under control. I do realise that traffic situations like these can have bad consequences (someone could do something silly) and aren’t exactly laughing matters. Nevertheless, I found Dad’s comment hilarious because of how I interpreted his comment. While I realise that the person in front of the huge lineup probably wasn’t literally a clown, the way I interpret figurative language first involves picturing the literal meaning of the statement in question and then applying it to the situation. So here, for example, when Dad said ‘some clown’ was holding up the traffic, I first pictured a clown at the front of the line who had decided to go slow. I pictured the clown as being dressed in colourful clothing and having the white makeup over his face as well as coloured make up around his mouth. I pictured him without a care in the world (certainly not caring about holding up traffic) and it was this picture that mainly gave me the desire to laugh.
When someone uses figurative language like this (even if I know what they’re saying isn’t to be taken literally), I do picture it in my mind when comparing it to the situation at hand. In the above example with the clown, once I have the literal image of a clown, it is easy to make the comparison between it and a person who makes a senseless decision.
Another example I’ll use is the old expression, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” First I picture cats and dogs falling out of the sky. And then a split-second later, I picture the combined mass of all those cats and dogs being converted into rain drops and I can tell that the rain is extremely heavy! When I was very young (less than five years old), I remember thinking that the statement meant it was raining on cats and dogs. I think this was because since my mind has a tendency to take things literally, the only realistic scenario involving both animals and rain was that it was raining on the animals. Later on I found out this wasn’t the case though.
The same goes with other common expressions such as “barked up the wrong tree” and “take a hike”. Sometimes I even forget what the figurative context means (why I just looked up both of these expressions on the internet just now to remind myself!). I have a precise and logical mind, which is why it’s easier to picture the literal meaning first and then compare it to the figurative meaning second (even if these steps happen each in only a split second).
Just like how I analyze the social conventions of the society that I happen to live in with rigor (which I’ve done many times in this blog), it’s how my brain works.