Volume 15, Issue 2, 2015
Inferring Content: Metaphor and Malapropism
It is traditionally thought that metaphorical utterances constitute a special—nonliteral—kind of departure from lexical constraints on meaning. Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson have been forcefully arguing against this: according to them, relevance theory’s comprehension/interpretation procedure for metaphorical utterances does not require details specific to metaphor (or nonliteral discourse); instead, the same type of comprehension procedure as that in place for literal utterances covers metaphors as well. One of Sperber and Wilson’s central reasons for holding this is that metaphorical utterances occupy one end of a continuum that includes literal, loose and hyperbolic utterances with no sharp boundaries in between them. Call this the continuum argument about interpreting metaphors. My aim is to show that this continuum argument doesn’t work. For if it were to work, it would have an unwanted consequence: it could be converted into a continuum argument about interpreting linguistic errors, including slips of the tongue, of which malaprops are a special case. In particular, based on the premise that the literal–loose–metaphorical continuum extends to malaprops also, we could conclude that the relevance-theoretic comprehension procedure for malaprops does not require details specific to linguistic errors, that is, details beyond those already in place for interpreting literal utterances. Given that we have good reason to reject this conclusion, we also have good reason to rethink the conclusion of the continuum argument about interpreting metaphors and consider what additional (metaphor-specific) details—about the role of constraints due to what is lexically encoded by the words used—might be added to relevance-theoretic comprehension procedures.