How body parts double up in English language

It turns out that human body parts lend themselves particularly well to this kind of adaptation

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 21 Apr 2022, 9:31 PM

Have you noticed how many of our body parts double up and do figurative duty in English usage?

This is not totally unreasonable: English words, after all, constantly evolve, not only in the sense of what they mean, but how they mean what they mean. English language usage can, and does, transform its parts of speech from one sense to another without changing even a syllable. Thus, in golf, speaking of “the green” is a common way of referring to a golf course; the noun comes from the adjective green, as in “green grass”, whose meaning got adapted to describe the golf course itself, since its predominant feature is the green grass. English is flexible that way, creating a noun out of a descriptive adjective.

It turns out that human body parts lend themselves particularly well to this kind of adaptation. Making metaphors out of your biology, and applying them to situations that have nothing to do with your physical shape, is easy. Let me illustrate what I mean with this slightly discursive foray into how.

Assuming you, the reader works for a company, let’s start at the top — you can head your firm, and it’s quite possible that the announcement of your appointment will give you a heady feeling, especially if you have been promoted. Perhaps, you always had a nose for sensing trouble and heading it off, which is why you were appointed ahead of your peers. Or maybe you were blooded early in the company? You might be the kind of head who always backs his employees, and you’ve known early on when to toe the line laid down by the management. Or perhaps you muscled your way into the job, using strong-arm tactics to elbow out your rivals. (Or maybe you even kneecapped some of them!)

But never forget that, as every head knows, it’s lonely at the top. You have to have the heart for it. It’s clear the neck-to-neck competition with business rivals can be a challenge, and a ruthlessly determined competitor can skin you. You might eye your rivals’ business practices suspiciously, but still be unable to put a finger on what they’re doing that makes them better than you. You may be a good pupil of the textbooks’ best business practices, but it’s not enough to knuckle down to your work — you need to have a gut feeling for how things need to be. A bit of research and you might be able to nail it! And they’ll just have to hand it to you. But if things go wrong with some of your decisions, you’ll have to face the consequences and shoulder the blame. Even worse, if you’re held responsible for major losses, you’d have to don the hair-shirt and your head may be on the chopping-block!

If the worst comes to the worst, you might be fired and the company car taken away from you. Then you would have to thumb a ride or leg it home. And if you take a cab, you’ll have to foot the bill. I know it’s not easy to stomach the thought. You’ll need the guts to deal with adversity. And of course you must have the spine to face down your detractors in the teeth of their hostility. Failure brings out the bile in some people. Their comments won’t be palatable. The nicer ones will rib you; the nastier ones will skin you alive. In any case you can be sure that in bad times, tongues will wag in throaty whispers and people you used to trust will start bad-mouthing you. You can try to palm off your mistakes on others, but that won’t always work. There are always people trying to poke their nose into your business, even if you tell them to butt out! You’ve got to hand it to them — they do persist. The best thing is to turn a deaf ear to their comments.

I’m sorry to have told you such a depressing story. But don’t let it upset you too much. Have a heart: life is always worth living.... but that depends on the liver. (Yes, that has a double meaning too!) Don’t worry; I was just pulling your leg.

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