Carl Rustung

Etymology, proverbs, language history


Metaphor: the Alchemy of Thought

Axis Praxis on the importance of metaphor.


The power of metaphor

To fully appreciate the power of metaphor (and it’s more formal cousin, analogy), we must look to its oft-neglected role in science and technology. We speak of a genetic “code” or “blueprint”. We explain the structure of the atom to schoolchildren by analogy with the solar system. We think of the brain as a machine, or a computer, or a social network. These metaphors and analogies can help impart new ideas to the student and the layperson.

Metaphier and metaphrand

Jaynes described a metaphor as comprising of two parts. The metaphrand is the thing to be described or understood, and the metaphier is the more familiar thing with which it is compared. The human body is a very common metaphier; we speak of the head of a table, the foot of a mountain, the face and hands of a clock, and the mouth of a river.


Ant etymology rabbit hole

Was admiring the word myrmecology (the study of ants), and got curious about its similarity to the Swedish word for ant, myra, and the Norwegian variant maur.

Started wondering about the word ant, since it’s so different. As far as I can tell, it’s an orally eroded version of the synonym emmet from the Old English ǣmete, related to the German Ameise. Myrmecology, like most “studies of”, comes from Greek, in this case múrmēx (ant).

Looked up the etymology for maur as well: the Scandinavian names come from the Old Norse maurr, so it looks like the relation to myrmecology is either coincidental or goes back to Indo-European.

Trying to make sense of an online Indo-European dictionary, the closest I got was:

Root / lemma: mai-1

English meaning: to cut down, work with a sharp instrument


2. d-extension: got. maitan `hew, hit, cut, clip', [...] ahd. mīza `Milbe' (probably to gr. μίδας `Made'), perhaps also ags. ǣ-mette, engl. ant, emmet, ahd. ā-meiza `Ameise'

So... looks to me like there’s some kind of link between King Midas (μίδας) and the word ‘ant’, but damned if I can find the link to “myrmecology”.

As a consolation prize, I’ll settle for finding out there’s a Midas ant (Myrmecia midas) living in Australia.