Teaching Technical Terminology: Can Resurrecting “Dead Metaphors” Help?

In “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell draws a distinction between a “dead” metaphor, one that has “in effect reverted to being an ordinary word,” and “dying” metaphors, which he argues “have lost all evocative power,” in large part because they “are used without knowledge of their meaning.” The technical terms discussed in this paper share all of these characteristics. Although they originated as metaphors, drawing mainly on analogies to physical objects used in older technologies, they are now often presented without reference to their original meanings, and are thus perceived simply as arbitrary terms in the specialized lexicon of a particular discipline.
This paper focuses on terms from printing, typography, and page design. Some of these are now in more general use, such as the distinction between “upper case” and “lower case” letters, but how many people know that these terms refer to where the individual pieces of metal type were kept in the hinged wooden case used to store the entire “font” of that type? Or that the compartments used to separate the pieces by letter were called “sorts,” which then became a metonymy for the pieces themselves? When an 18th-century typesetter ran out of pieces of type for lower-case e, for example, they were “out of sorts”—literally as well as metaphorically.
Other terms discussed in the paper are still fairly specialized—such as “leading” used as a measure of the extra vertical space between lines, or the meaning of “gutter” and “alley” in page design—and I argue that “resurrecting” the literal and figurative senses of these terms can help restore some of their “evocative power,” making them more meaningful and thus easier to remember.

Author: Sara Oswald