Diamond geezers and golden balls: The metallisation of mankind

Article published on Dec. 16, 2013
Article published on Dec. 16, 2013

It seems strange and desperate that as humans we constantly try to appropriate the unique qualities of metals and minerals through our use of language. Soft fleshy organisms, feeble in body and frail in mind, we hubristically declare our selves to be hard as nails, or to have nerves of steel. In short, we want to be metal.

The metaphor­i­cal met­alli­sa­tion of our bod­ies and our minds is a pan-Eu­ro­pean phe­nom­e­non. Through­out Eu­rope, flimsy, fleshy hu­mans ap­pro­pri­ate met­al­lur­gi­cal nomen­cla­tures, try­ing to be some­thing we're not. Or per­haps we are sim­ply try­ing to crys­tallise our com­pe­tences in colour­ful metaphors? What­ever the cause, met­al­lur­gi­cal metaphors per­vade our lan­guage like a semi-benev­o­lent virus.

Typ­i­cally met­al­lur­gi­cal metaphors come pack­aged as com­pli­ments. ‘Di­a­mond geezer’ is the epit­ome of the min­er­alog­i­cal com­pli­ment. A di­a­mond geezer evokes the un­yield­ing re­silience of the di­a­mond- he is as hard as nails. More­over, he em­bod­ies the unique, un­par­al­leled charm of the di­a­mond- a di­a­mond geezer gives you his last cig­a­rette or his last bread roll even when he's hun­gry. The di­a­mond geezer is in­valu­able just like his name­sake.

Many Eu­ro­pean lan­guages take a pretty metal and metaphor­i­cally put it in their mouth. The Span­ish refer to a smooth talker as ‘pico de oro’ (golden beak), the Pol­ish say ‘złotousty’ which is syn­ony­mous with the Eng­lish ‘sil­ver-tongued’. Hu­mans are se­duced by sil­ver-tongued smooth talk­ers just like mag­pies are by shiny things. These metaphors in­di­cate the im­por­tance of aes­thet­ics in se­duc­tive dis­course.

The most pop­u­lar qual­ity to ap­pro­pri­ate from met­als and metaphor­i­cally apply to human be­ings is so­lid­ity and re­silience. Ir­re­press­ibly good health is de­scribed as iron in French, ‘une santé de fer’ and Span­ish too, ‘salud de hi­erro’. In French, Pol­ish, and Eng­lish sang-froid is metal­li­cised as ‘nerfs d'acier’, ‘mieć stalowe nerwy’ and nerves of steel re­spec­tively.

We are jeal­ous of met­als on so many lev­els, and we all know that jeal­ousy is soon fol­lowed by im­i­ta­tion. Just look at all those wounded hu­mans with metal plates in their legs. The world of sci­ence fic­tion is pop­u­lated with men made of metal- The Ter­mi­na­tor, the Tin Man, Iron Man. With all these bionic arms and legs and shiny metal em­bell­ish­ments being in­cor­po­rated into the human anatomy, be­fore long say­ing some­one has a sil­ver tongue or ‘un men­tal d’acier’ will per­haps be a sim­ple state­ment of fact rather than a metaphor.

This article is part of Cafébabel's 'Tower of Babel' series which explores the curiosities and delights of Europe's many languages.