One Said ‘as big as their head’ and ‘put an eye of plastic’!

By Soumaya Ben Rochd

Soumaya Ben Rochd.

Soumaya Ben Rochd lives at Rue El Mouahidine, Oujda, Morocco. Graduated in English Literature from the Faculty of Letters and Sciences, Mohammed I University, Oujda City Morocco, she is currently doing her MA in Gender, Society and Human Development. She was co-editor of the annual e-newsletter Metaphor (2008–2011). She speaks and writes in Arabic, English and French.

Figurative speech is not only a distinctive feature of literature. In everyday communication, rhetorical tropes such as metaphors, metonyms and irony are used very often. They “can be seen as offering us a variety of ways of saying ‘this is (or is like) that’” (Chandler 185).

According to the poet Wallace Steven, “reality is a cliché from which we escape by metaphor” (qtd in Chandler 188), which means that without metaphors reality would be much boring. Rhetorical tropes and mainly metaphors can be found in any language. In Moroccan Arabic dialect for example, there are various indirect ways of saying or describing things. The word ‘head’ for instance is used in many contexts to express different ideas. Similarly, the word ‘eye’ or ‘eyes’ is sometimes used, depending on the context, to reflect states which are not directly related to the sense of sight.

The word ‘head’ refers most of the time to the person himself/herself. This is a metonym, since the part ‘head’ stands for the whole: the human being. We say, for example, “take care of your head”, and we mean “pay attention to yourself”. It also means in other contexts “mind your business”. Still ‘head’ stands for the person.

In this sentence: “one’s head is heavy” or “one’s head is hard”, ‘head’ does not stand for the person but rather for their intelligence. Both these examples mean that the person is stupid or understands very slowly, although the meaning of the second example is also that the person is stubborn. In this case, the head is associated with concrete attributes (hard like stone for example) to refer metaphorically to an abstract state: stupidity.

We often say “someone or something went up my head” meaning that I can no longer bear with them or it. In this example, the relationship between the literal meaning and the figurative one seems to be arbitrary as there is no logical explanation to the association of ‘going up someone’s head’ with ‘not bearing with them’. However, we may say that this feeling or state of ‘not bearing’ with someone or something is like a moving object; when it reaches the head, it is the extreme. It is a metaphor that makes it possible to understand an abstract state of mind in terms of a concrete one, the essence of metaphor being for Lakoff and Johnson “understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another” (qtd Chandler 190).

Another common example in which we use the word ‘head’ is: “one head is telling me to do something, while another head is telling me to do something else”, which simply means “I wonder what to do”. The head stands here for the inner voices that a person imagines they are hearing. This metaphor is based on the comparison of this state of hesitation to two heads which reflect a division in the person’s mind and which indirectly stand for two choices or opinions.

When a person says something impolite to someone or insults them in such an unexpected way, we say that “they said it as big as their head”. This means that the head is the biggest part of the human body, not in terms of physical size, but indirectly, since the head is the centre of thought and reason. This example is an irony, because a big head is supposed to be full of wisdom and reason, but what the person has said shows that they have a small head because they did not use reason while saying that.

Consider the use of ‘eye’ in this sentence: “One put an eye of plastic”. The sentence implies they overlooked something or pretended not to care about what they have seen. This attitude of overlooking something is concretized by the image of an eye of plastic. It is a metaphor that enables us to understand better this attitude. We can imagine how putting an eye of plastic will prevent the person from seeing clearly or seeing at all, but they are the one who chooses to put it.

When we ask someone “Is your eye in it?”, we mean “Do you really want to have it? It is an image that shows the desire to have something as a scene in which the very eye of the person is isolated from their body and put in the thing desired. The ‘eye’ thus stands indirectly for the desire. It is a metaphor that enables one to understand the state of desiring something in terms of the concrete image of having the eye itself in it.

The ‘eye’ can also stand for love in the following metaphor: “he/she is my eyes”, which means I love them dearly. The choice of ‘eyes’ to speak about love is significant because a person’s eyes are among the most fragile and the most important parts of the body (although every other part is important as well, the eye is very special). To compare a person whom one loves to their eyes means that they care for him/her and fear that something bad happens to him/her in the same way that they fear their own eyes are touched. When an abstract concept like love is concretized, it becomes easier to understand the exact feeling that the person is talking about.

“One’s eye took him” means that he fell asleep. The picture that this example draws is that when a person is asleep, they are no longer in this world; their eyes show them unreal things and imaginary events. It is a metonym because it substitutes the effect that is the transport towards another world experienced through the eyes (even if they are shut) for the cause that is to sleep. To understand it better, it is possible to expand this example and simply say that one’s eye took him to another world which is the world of sleeping.

We frequently say: “one’s eyes are boiling”. This means that they hide a bad intention. It is often said about a child, even though it does not mean that their intention is evil but rather that they have done something that they were warned against or that they intend to do it. The way a person’s eyes glitter reveals sometimes their emotional state or their intention. In this example, the way the eyes glitter makes them look as if they were boiling like water under the effect of heat. It is a metaphor through which we understand the state of hiding a bad intention in terms of the glittering of the eyes.

When a person does something that you believe to be very bad, you say “He/she dropped from my eyes”. It is an indirect way to say that you no longer respect and like them as before. In this example, the eyes are like a high place in which you put people whom you like and respect. When you no longer respect a person for some reason, you drop them from this high place. The eye is thus the window from which you see a person as a whole, and from which you judge them. In this sense it is a metaphor.

The use of the ‘head’ and the ‘eye’ is very frequent in everyday figurative speech of Moroccan dialect. They are used instead of the whole body because they have both special features that cannot be found in any other part of the body. They are moreover used in different contexts to convey different meanings or stand for different things. Sometimes, the associations are arbitrary but they become natural due to the frequency of their use.

March 2008.


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