I have to admit something right now: I've never heard a blood-curdling scream. Or had my skin crawl. Or done back-breaking work. Well, not literally, at least. English is steeped in metaphors—like that one. What interests me most is the richness of language when it comes to describing our bodies. From silver tongues to tin ears and steely gazes, it’s pretty clear how much we weld ourselves to our world.
And really, the point of metaphor is to make things easier to understand. It says a lot about us that we use so many metaphors to describe our physical selves. Even though we’re in our bodies all the time (I hope), they’re still hard to talk about. And being sick or upset makes it even worse.
So we turn to language. Think about it—the idea of blood actually curdling is, at best, really gross. How better to convey that deep discomfort we feel when we hear a cry of distress? Blood carries emotion as much as it does oxygen. Even when it doesn’t curdle, it can run cold. Or if I’m particularly heartless (see below), I might have ice-water in my veins. Things are even colour-coded. The strong-willed are red-blooded. The aristocracy are blue-blooded.
To continue in the same vein, the heart is another good case study. It can break, bleed, ache, leap, or reach out. Other hearts are cold, warm, stone, gold, or totally absent. These metaphors turn part of a body into part of a person. And I think that’s why people use them.
It’s something to remember in practice. It’s nice to think that clinical terminology always makes things clearer (even though it’s often just as colourful—“arachnodactyly,” “sausage digits,” and “simian creases” are pretty unkind), but it doesn’t always do the job. Patients are very creative, and only they know what they’re going through. I know I like to put quotations in my histories. “It feels like I have an angry cat in here” says so much more to me than “sharp abdominal pain.”
I am a History student and tea-drinker in my final year of clerkship at the University of Saskatchewan. Once free to roam the professional world, I hope to teach and to work in palliative and hospice medicine