January 25th, 2012
On a recent Way With Words podcast, a caller asked whether a half-full trash can should be referred to as half full, or half empty, and whether this trash can was symbolic of optimism or pessimism.
The question is in relation to the expression “is the glass half full or half empty?” In this expression, the glass is presumed to have something good in it, cold water, wine, etc., so the optimist sees it as a half full glass and the pessimist sees it as half empty.
I would argue that the trash can variant is not a word or language related question. The problem is that the trash can variation breaks the metaphor of the original expression due to sloppy or inattentive thinking. One cannot rationally subsitute words or phrases in a colloquial expression, metaphor, etc. because the original is not literal.
A person who says they are hungry enough to eat a horse is not offering to do so. They are merely saying they are very hungry. This person is also not offering to eat a spectrum of animals, such as zebras, dogs and raccoons. Substituting these animals does not offer a new situation that is of any use. The expression “I’m so hungry I could eat a raccoon” means nothing.
One more example. There’s an old British expression “carrying coals to Newcastle.” Newcastle, England used to be the hub of the British coal trade. There was so much coal there it wouldn’t have made sense for a person to carry more coal there. So the expression basically means an ineffectual, pointless or redundant act. Now, let’s say I bring several large bags of marshmallows to Newcastle. What, I wonder, does “carrying marshmallows to Newcastle” mean, in a philosophical sense? It means nothing.