MELTING METAPHORS

Climate change will kill off icebergs, animals, and metaphors

Climate change; language change.
Climate change; language change.
Image: Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini
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Expressions that refer to weather and climate are everywhere throughout language, English or otherwise. Emails come in floods. Consciousness is a stream. Heads get foggy or are in the clouds.

But the origins of metaphors often become hazy as the years go on. Very often, the literal reference for the figurative meaning gets lost. The “save” icon in many software programs is a floppy disk, an object that today’s teenagers have probably never seen in real life. Some of us less-nautical types aren’t totally sure what the expression “three sheets to the wind” is referring to. (You get so drunk that you wrap yourself in three sheets, then stammer off into the wind??)

This kind of separation between the figurative and the literal is likely happen within a couple generations for a large number of weather-related sayings and metaphors, thanks to climate change. The literal meaning that some of these expressions refer to will simply no longer exist in the world, as the globe warms, sea levels rise, storms become more extreme, animal species die out, and more droughts and heat waves happen. But the metaphors will stick around. Here are a few expressions that might lose their referents, and how future generations may attempt to make sense of them.

Tip of the iceberg. “It was, like, a big thing of ice, but you would only look at the top, for some reason.”

100-year flood. “Don’t those happen every five years?”

Glacial pace. “I have no idea what a ‘glacial’ is, but presumably it is slow.”

Save for a rainy day. “This one always confused me because it rains almost every day—not much time to save!”

Eye of the tiger. “That one comes from an old song. Don’t know who ‘The Tiger’ is.”

A day at the beach. “It’s ironic. Like, most beaches are dangerous, stormy ruins, so it’s saying ‘Oh what a nice time!’ when it’s really terrible.”

One swallow does not a summer make. “Well, swallows are here year-round, so it’s saying, if there’s just one, it’s probably not summer?”

On thin ice. “When your ice is ‘thin’ and almost melted, so you need to put more in your drink.”

Boiling the ocean. “I don’t get this one; why would that be difficult?”