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Posts Tagged ‘words’

Ok, this post isn’t technically related to family history.  But this is something that’s driven me nuts for years—trying to remember the difference between metaphors, similes and analogies.  I end up referring to something as a metaphor when it’s probably an analogy, or use a simile and call it an analogy.  Maybe if I write down the definitions, I’ll be a bit more likely to remember which is which.

Here are the definitions.

metaphora figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance

similea figure of speech in which two unlike things are explicitly compared

analogya similarity between like features of two things, on which a comparison may be based

Ok, that’s a start, but these definitions don’t really help me much.  They all sound like pretty much the same thing.

Let’s take another stab at defining each of these, and provide an example of each.

Metaphor

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which you say that one thing is another.  By treating two seemingly different things as identical, you illustrate the similarities that we may have not noticed were there.  Here are some examples:

  • Life is a journey
  • I am a rock
  • My wife is a pain in the neck

Notice that I’m not saying “life is a journey because X, Y and Z”.  We just equate the two, which is the power of metaphor—the similarities are inferred.

Simile

A simile is a type of metaphor where we use the word like or the word as.  It’s more explicit than a metaphor, and less poetic.  It tells us that two things are similar, rather than inferring that they are, by equating them.  Here are some examples:

  • Free as the wind
  • Talking to him is like talking to a brick wall
  • Her feet are as big as battleships

Analogy

An analogy is more complex and intricate than either a metaphor or a simile.  It’s a way of comparing two different things by showing a number of ways in which they are similar.  We also logically infer that if the two things are similar in some things, they are similar in others.  Here are some examples:

  • A URL on the web is analogous to a file name on your PC
  • The fight for gay rights is the civil rights movement of the 21st century
  • With that last statement, I am the Jerry Springer of the blogging world

The point here is that we’re not pointing out just one characteristic that is similar between the two things mentioned, but drawing a parallel.  In the case of the URL and the file name, you can think of a number of ways in which the URL is like a file name, e.g. it uniquely identifies what you’re looking for, tells you where to find something, it’s what you feed into a tool to view the item, etc.

The other type of analogy that you will run across is the kind found on many IQ or college prep tests, of the form “A is to B as C is to ?”.  Here are a few examples:

  • Medicine is to Illness as Law is to Anarchy
  • Keyboard is to Blogger as Guitar is to Rock Star
  • Finger is to Eye as Knee is to Crotch

(Hey, I didn’t say that they were going to be good analogies).

So Now You Know

There you have it.  A quick overview of metaphors, similes and analogies.  You no longer have an excuse to forget which is which.  Your mind is full—like a pot of pasta.

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Words are powerful.  A well chosen word can serve to make an entire line of reasoning clear to someone that you’re communicating with.  They can also be incredibly evocative.  A single word can connect the listener with long forgotten memories or tap into deep emotions.

As I listened to Barack Obama’s inauguration speech, I found myself really focusing on the individual words, more than the actual message.  This was no ordinary everyday speech, but an inaugural address—the vehicle that a new president uses to project his most central beliefs and values.  So the speech was filled with very powerful words like:  Nation.  People.  Generation.  Work.  Hope.

It occurred to me that maybe I’d be hearing the same words, even had the other candidate won.  The message may well be quite different, but I started thinking that I’d hear many of the same powerful words being used.

I decided to do a little experiment and actually analyze which words President Obama was using in his speech.  There are web pages out there that could do this for me, not only making a list of which words were present in the speech, but keeping track of which words appeared most frequently.

What I created for the speech is known as a “tag cloud”.  You often see them along the side of a blog, depicting the most common topics that the author has blogged about.  The distinctive thing about tag clouds is that the size of the words in the “cloud” is proportional to how many posts are about that topic.  Below is an example—a fragment of the tag cloud from my blog post.

Tag Cloud

You can do a similar sort of thing with any arbitrary chunk of text.  Run it through a piece of software that analyzes the individual words and then generates a tag cloud, with the words used most often showing up the largest.

I couldn’t wait to try this on Obama’s speech.  I quickly found the TagCrowd web site, which lets you input any arbitrary text and generates a tag cloud for you.  Here’s a fragment of the cloud that I got for Obama’s inaugural speech:

Obama's Inaugural

This was incredibly cool.  You can see that the tag cloud is way of depicting the speech visually, with the most used words the most noticeable, because of their size.  This illustrates the particular power of these words in a very compelling way.

I immediately started wondering what some of the other inaugural addresses would look like, when depicted this way.  So I plugged in President Bush’s 2nd inaugural address, from Jan, 2005.  Here’s a chunk of that tag cloud:

Bush Cloud

This was also sort of amazing.  Some of the same words showed up again—common themes between both men.  But there are also some big differences, based on which words are central to the message being delivered.  Somehow, it seemed like just looking at the tag cloud was imparting a true sense of each man and the message being delivered.

I can never really do things in half measures, so I decided to put together a web page that included tag clouds for every single inaugural address—from Washington to Obama.  I also included links back to the full text of each inaugural address.

You can see the end result at: http://www.seans.com/tags

You’ll see that I also added one more very interesting piece of information.  On the main page, where I list each president and their inaugural address(es), I also list the three most common words from that particular address.

This makes for some very interesting reading, just reading the list of presidents, without going to the tag clouds.  Somehow, even with just three words, you can get a sense of the man and the times during which he was speaking.

Here are a few examples:

  • Thomas Jefferson:  government, fellow-citizens, man
  • Abraham Lincoln:  constitution, states, people
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt:  national, people, helped
  • John F. Kennedy:  sides, world, pledge

In the end, this was a fascinating exercise.  It really highlights the raw power of the words being used in these speeches.  Even when we break the speech up into words, the individual words still have great power, as the core concepts and beliefs jump out at us.

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