- Gimli drew his axe. "If one of them man eating beasts even try to attack, my axe will cut them down."
- "What, all by itself?" wondered Acacia.
- "Now, now. Metonomy happens."
- —TOS #15, "The Maiden"
Figurative language is a classification of words or phrases whose meaning is understood by means other than a literal definition, or denotation. Rather, figurative language relies on associated meaning, or connotation, which may be dependent upon context and/or shared experience.
Common Types of Figurative Language
In linguistics, anthropomorphism is a type of comparison that attributes human traits to non-human or even inanimate targets. When someone refers to the "thirsty ground," they don't mean the ground literally experiences a feeling of thirst, but rather compares the ground's dehydration to a similar condition in humans that would cause a feeling of thirst.
Similarly, personification attributes human personality traits to non-humans, often describing the wishes or intentions of things that cannot actually have them. To say that the negative and positive sides of magnets "want" to hook up is personification.
Hyperbole and Understatement
Both hyperbole and understatement use exaggeration to create an impression. Hyperbole inflates its target to bigger, badder, more grandiose status, while understatement... well, it's pretty much what it sounds like.
Examples of hyperbole include expressions like "My mom's going to kill me," "This weighs a ton," and "We're up to our eyeballs in Sues."
Understatement is popular in British humor and includes scenes like the Monty Python sketch in which an army officer has lost his leg to a tiger and, upon being asked how he feels, looks down at the stump and replies "Stings a bit."
Bathos is a similar concept in which a serious, grandiose statement results in humor by unexpectedly (sometimes unintentionally) deflating itself.
Wildly popular in the PPC, linguistic irony is a use of a word or phrase that conveys a meaning opposite to its usual meaning. When an agent says something like "This Sue is a real class act," or "How considerate of the Flowers to send me this mission," they don't mean that the Sue is polished and respectable, or that the Flowers care for their preferences; in fact, they mean the Sue is a disgraceful shambles and that the Flowers are insensitive meanies. Irony is usually understood by context, since tone of voice may or may not help. (When it does, that's a type of sarcasm.)
Situational irony, in which an action produces results directly and meaningfully contrary to expectations, also gets its share of screen time. Often, PPC agents strive to create situational irony when dispatching a Sue. For instance, the dragon-loving Sues in TOS mission twenty-two were fed to Glaurung in a visceral display of the difference between Sue expectations and canon reality.
Dramatic irony occurs metafictionally, when the author of a story reveals something to the audience but not to the characters. The sense of irony is created when the characters act on faulty assumptions and the audience knows they're making a mistake. A classic example of dramatic irony occurs in Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, in which the audience knows the identity of Oedipus' true father and mother, but he does not, resulting in him killing his father and sleeping with his mother in accordance with the prophecy at the beginning of the play, which they have all been trying to avoid.
Irony should not be misunderstood to mean something that is simply out of the ordinary or coincidental; irony, be it linguistic, situational, or dramatic, always refers to something resonantly contrary to expectations. For instance, to borrow an example from Alanis Morissette's popular song, "Ironic," a traffic jam when you’re already late sucks, but is not in and of itself ironic. However, a traffic jam when you’re already late to receive an award from the Municipal Planning Board for reducing the city’s automobile congestion by 80 percent—that's ironic.
It's definitely ironic that a song called "Ironic" contains little or no actual irony, though.
Metaphor and Simile
Possibly the most well-known type of figurative language, metaphor relies on similarity between two concepts to draw a comparison between the two. For instance, instead of saying "the girl had long, wavy blonde hair," a writer can say "a golden waterfall spilled down her back." The readers know there isn't a literal waterfall sprouting from the girl's head, because that makes no sense; but they understand the similarity between the way water spills over a fall and the way long hair lies. Taken too far, this sort of description may result in purple prose, but selective use can save a story from being too dry.
The difference between metaphor and simile, its close cousin, is the wording used. Metaphor is an indirect comparison, equating one thing with another and letting context determine which details are being compared: "This Sue is a real ogre." Simile is a more specific likening of two concepts, often using the word like or as: "This Sue's bashing is as relentless as an ogre."
The quote at the top of the page is an example of metonymy, a type of figurative language in which a thing is not called by its own name, but by something intimately associated with it. In this case, the phrase "[Gimli's] axe will cut them down" relies upon the reader understanding that an axe is an inanimate object and thus incapable of acting on its own; to understand the phrase, the reader must automatically reject a literal interpretation and instead associate Gimli's axe with Gimli himself to reach the meaning of the phrase: using his axe, Gimli will cut them down.
Figurative Language and the PPC
Contrary to popular belief, the PPC does not hate figurative language. The trouble is that the badfics we spork either don't use it properly or are just so poorly written that there's little reason to trust in their integrity. In some cases, a badfic may not intend for a statement to invoke imagery at all, but it does anyway due to writing errors ("A wizard pooped out of thin air"), further blurring the line between the literal and the figurative. The end result is that PPC writers view even otherwise-acceptable figurative expressions with suspicion because we just can't be sure the fic is using them figuratively.